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Freedom as the efficacy of knowledge

r..e edom

as Ihe
Bfficacy of knowledge
Andrew Collier
In this paper, I am primarily concerned with freedom in the metaphysical sense, not with political
freedom. Nevertheless, some of my examples will
have political import, and I do believe that there is
a relation of theoretical support between the conception of freedom which I am defending and the conception of political freedom that I would wish to defend;
and, on the other hand, between the conception of
political freedom that I am opposing and the conceptions of political freedom that I regard as mystifying. Some of the criticisms which I will attempt to
refute have been made in the context of political
polemics, and some of the problems I attempt to
solve have arisen – among other places – within a
politically oriented tradition of philosophy, namely

It may therefore help to avoid misunderstandings
if I state at the outset that the conception of political
freedom to which I adhere is that which identifies
freedom with the power to get what one wants, to
remove obstacles to satisfaction. I reject on the one
hand neo-liberal notions of ‘purely negative’ liberty
which rules out only deliberate interference, and on
the other, idealist notions which permit expressions
like ‘being compelled to be free’.

Roads 10 freedom ?

There have been tw()main metaphysical notions or
freedom. They may be called (though the terms are
a bit unsatisfactory) the voluntarist and the intellect·
ual notions. According to the voluntarist notion,
freedom is an attribute of ‘the will’ – different possibilities are presented to the will, whether by
‘impulses’ or culture, and it chooses between them,
being itself undetermined causally in its choice.

This view has often been found philosophically unsatisfactory in the form stated, but reappears in its
essential features in other forms. Examples: the
idea of ‘reason’ conceived as providing itself with
its own ends, as in Kant; and Sartre’s ‘fundamental
chOice’, which takes place at the pre-reflective
level, yet has many of the characteristics of the
traditional ‘free will’.

The intellectual notion is that freedom is rational
self-direction, i. e. direction by reason, which
indeed receives all its motives from ‘outside’,
from impulses and their culturally modified forms,
which is in other words ‘a slave of the passions’.

This does not of course mean that though intrinsically having different ends from the passions, it
is subordinated to them. Rather, the very essence
of rea~on is the service of the passions, by acquiring knowledge of the world in which they must be
satisfied and initiating rational action to satisfy
them; .also by raising the awareness of those
passion~ themselves to the level of knowledge, and
dealing with’ contradictions within and between them.

Reason is a link in the causal chain between a
desire and its satisfaction. In Freud’s terms, reason is the reality.-principle – a modification of the
pleasure-principle in the servjC«; of’. wliteh it remains, based on the perceptual system and linked
to motility, aimed at securing ‘the line of maximum


advantage’ rather than ‘the liuff of teast resistance’.

This notion of freedom has sometimes been ,expres’sed in formulas like ‘freedom is knowledge’ or is
‘the knowledge of necessity’, or, less happily, ‘the
consciousness or recognition of necessity’.

I do not intend in this paper to prove the truth of
the intellectualist conception of freedom. My
grounds for believing it to be true are concerned
with the fact that it accounts for our experience of
freedom in a way that is compatible with a scientific realist ontology. I intend rather to show that it is
coherent, and does not lead to some of the consequences which it has been thought to by its opponents. However, though I do not think it necessary to
show that the intellectualist view accords better
with our self -experience than others in order to
prove it, there are certain ways in which it does.

In particular, it allows for degrees of fre~dom,
whereas voluntarist freedom is an all-or :-nothing
thing. Insofar as our actions – motivated by
‘passions’ – are based on self-knowledge and knowledge of the world, they are more free. Insofar as
we are ignorant of forces outside us, we are at
their mercy. And insofar as repression hides our
desires from us and displacement presents to us as
our desires things that will not really satisfy us,
we are at the mercy of our own unconscious.

Now knowledge in itself tells us about how things
are: they can only change in accordance with causal
laws, which can of course be the objects of knowledge. We can change things, but our activity itself
must also obey these laws. No process which takes
place only in our consciousness can change things,
unless it issues in such action •. Changes in consciousness itself are products of processes governed by causal laws. In order to satisfy our desires we must act on the world; both the desire and
the action occur as part of law-governed processes;
to a greater or lesser extent, knowledge of these
processes also occurs as part of these processes,
and it is the effectivity of this knowledge that we
call ‘freedom’.

The voluntarist sees all this not as a theory about
how we can become freer and change the world, but
as a denial (implicit at least) that we can do so at
all. I want to show that he is mistaken in doing so,
and to understand the nature of this mistake.

The intellectualist position has been stated in the
follOwing terms by Engels:

‘Freedom does not consist in the dream of
independenc e from natural laws, but in the
knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility
this gives of systematically making them work
towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to
those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves – two classes of laws
which we can separate from each other at most
only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of
the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the
subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment

in relation to a definite ouestion. the greater
is the necessity with which the content of this
judgment will be determined’

(Anti -Diihring, pp136 -7)
Of course, the voluntarist will have no trouble in
accepting that our power can be increased by means
of knowledge of the external world. But just because
he accepts that, he is driven towards dualism; every
extension of our power over nature is a result of
greater knowledge of natural necessity. But if this
knowledge can be universally extended, he has
cause to worry about ‘free will’. Certainly this is
Kant’s road to dualism: ‘The starry heavens above
(i.e. science, which requires determinism) and the
moral law within (which requires free will). ‘

Engels is explicitly rejecting this dualism: we are
subject to the laws of natural necessity as are other
phenomena, so that knowledge of these laws constitutes our mental freedom as well as our power over
nature from which it is not essentially different.

Thi~ position of Engels has been repeatedly criticised within the Marxist tradition, by thinkers of a
voluntaristic tendency. Part of what provoked me to
write this paper was the bafflement I feel at the wa~
important thinkers like Lucio Colletti can state theIr
determinist opponent’s position with great clarity,
and yet fail to see that it is a consistent one, or that
it does not have the anti-activist implications attributed to it. The same misunderstandings have been
reiterated time and again, and each attempt to dispel them, however lucid, seems doomed to be misinterpreted in the same way. The debate cannot get
any further until the voluntarists start critiCising
the intellectualist position as it is actually held,
rather than as they imagine it to be. It seems to me
that the epistemological obstacle in this matter is a
dualistic metaphysics which the voluntarists seem to
assume as if it were an obvious fact – indeed the
assumption seems to be unconscious. There are a
whole lot of voluntarist texts which only make sense
on this assumption (e. g. all the ‘western Marxist’

attempts to show that the reformism of the Second
International stemmed from determinist philosophical premises which were shared by the Bolsheviks).

And this goes for non-marxist and semi-marxist
criticisms (Berlin and Sartre) as well. I take
Colletti as an example because I have more respect
for him as a philosopher and as a Marxist than for
most. In particular, he cannot be suspected of antiscientifte prejudices. Yet when Engelso~, Plekhanov
say that human activity is part of a law-governed
historic process, Colletti interprets them as saying
that human activity has no effect on the course of
history, that it is a mere epiphenomenon. He sees
such activity as necessarily an intervention; from
outside any law-governed process. Hearing that
human activity is also governed by these laws, he
can only interpret this as meaning that these lawgoverned processes and human activities exist along~
side each other, but that there is a one-way action
of the pr0cess on the activities. That the human acti~
vities are an essential part of this process, having
both causes and effects within it, he seems unable
to conceive. H~re- is how he replies to Plekhanov:


‘the man who appears to be the cause of a given
social phenomenon can and must in turn be
considered a consequence of those social
phenomena which have contributed to the formation of his character and the direction of his
will. Considered as a consequence, social

man Ca.Jl no longer ‘be coo. side red a ~ ~ent:

the circumstances which have determined Tus
actions do not depend upon his will. Hence his
activity now appears as an activity subordinated
to the law of necessity’


‘The argument could not be clearer: man,
who in his own ‘consciousness imagines himself to be the cause, is in reality the effect
and nothing but the effect. ‘

(Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin p68.

Plekhanov quoted in the Colletti text)
Now Plekhanov has not in fact said that man is only
an effect not also a cause; he has said that man is
not only a cause but also an effect, and therefor~
that the process as a whole is an unbroken causal
chain. The word ‘appears’ which might have led
C ollefti to assume that the causal efficacy of human
action is being denied, occurs also in the last sentence, where it cannot have that sense. Moreover
on p70, Plekhanov is quoted as saying:

‘Social Democracy considers historical development from the standpoint of necessity, and
its own activity as a necessary link in the chain
of those necessary conditions which combined,
make the triumph of socialism inevitable. A
necessary link cannot be superfluous. If it
were suppressed it would shatter the whole
chain of events.’

This should make it indisputable that Plekhanov’s
view of human activity is not the epiphenomenalist
one Colletti is ascribing to him. The dualist source
of Colletti’s inability to see what Plekhanov is say-‘,
ing is revealed in another passage where he’ aCcuses
the Marxists of the Second International of emptying
the concept of the economy of its socio-historical
content, reducing it to that of technology. The rationale of this accusation seems to be that he can only
conceive of human activity and processes subject to
natural necessity as two mutually exclusive orders
of being; hence if anyone says that economic processes are governed by causal laws, he can only
assume that they exclude human activities from
‘the economic’.

Colletti paraphrases the intellectualist formula
‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’: ‘Freedom’ in other words, is consciousness of being
determined. ‘(p69). This is the most usual interpretation of this formula by its opponents. It is
taken to mean that as we can’t affect the future we
had better accept what comes: che sera sera; what
can’t be cured must be endured, and so on. No’

doubt there have been philosophers who hoped that
the ‘recognition of necessity’ would lead to such
attitudes. Marcus Aurelius says: ‘instead of praying
to be granted or spared such-and-such a thing, why
not pray rather to be delivered from dreading it, or
lusting for it, or grieving over it ..• ‘ (Meditations,
book 9-40). This view still has its adherents. In
reply to the frustration of the Street Fighting Man,
the Beatles sing:

‘You say you’ll change the constitution
Well you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead’

Sometimes (by no means always) such a view is
justified by its adherents in terms of an intellectual17

ist ethic, i. e. if yo~ only knew enough, you would
know that nothing c.Quld be different from what it is,
and you would resign yourself. This attitude is
sometimes attributed to Spino~a, and Colletti feels
Spinoza’s presence lurking behind Plekhanov,
Engels and Hegel. He quotes a conversation between
Plekhanov and Engels to illustrate their admiration
for Spinoza. Sebastiano Timpanaro, criticising
Colletti’s voluntarism, agrees that the intellectualist formula is inadequate, but:

‘Not because of its tUlti-voluntarism, but because
of its anti-hedonism; because it denies the importance of the meaning of freedom as the absence of painful constraints and the presence of
all those conditions which ensure the happiness
of the individual; and because it insists that
man not only recognize necessity but also glory
and efface himself in it. Thus, it is part of
that conception of philosophy as asceticism
and self -repression . •. which Marxism utterly
rejects. ‘ (On Materialism pl06)
But he goes on to defend Engels’ use of this formula
.in that it is meant ‘not so much in the Spinozist
sense of an acquiescence in and apotheosis of reality, as in the Baconian sense that nature obeys us
only if we obey it. ‘ Unquestionably, Timpanaro’s
interpretation of Engels is correct. After all,
Engels say s. elsewhere:

‘Only very exceptionally, and in no case to
his and other people’s profit, can an individual
satisfy his urge towards happiness by preoccupation with himself. Rather it requires
preoccupation with the outside world, means
to satisfy his needs, that is to say, means of
subsistence, an individual of the opposite sex,
‘books, conversation, argument, activities,
objects for use and working up. Feuerbach’s
morality either presupposes that these means
and objects of satisfaction are given to every
individual as a matter of course, or else it
offers only inapplicable good advice and is
not therefore worth a brass farthing to people
who are without these means.’

(‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical
German philosophy’)
So clearly Engels cannot agree with Marcus
Aurelius, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. What
is more a matter of dispute is whether Spinoza did.

Certainly ifStuart Hampshire’s interpretation is
correct, his views are very close to ‘those of Engels~
but there is no time to go into this question here.

Detet’minism and fatalism

What I do want to argue is that·the ~tOlC Interpretation of the intellectualist formula is not only not the
only possible version of the intellectualist position;
it is actually not even a coherent version of it at all
(at any rate, given a few factual assumptions which
I think anyone will allow).

According to the Stoic verSion, when we know that
everything happens in accordance with necessity, we
know that it could not be otherwise, and this prev””7
ents us from fretting. Knowledge of necessity therefore has effects on human consciousness – it makes
it resigned instead of discontented. But then one
must ask: If human consciousness is itself part of
the reality governed by necessary laws, and is
affected in accordance with them, does it not also
,have effects in accordance with them? If so, then’

.the occurrence of this phenomenon – the knowledge
of necessity in human consciousness – will cause the
world to be different from what it would have been


had that human consciousness remained ignorant.

And this difference will consist preCisely in the
!act that the person concerned will behave in different ways – in this case, more resigned ways – than
he or she would have done otherwise (together with
all the manifold effects, near and remote, of
behaviour). Epictettis the slav-p,instead of revolting>against his slavery iike Spartacus, win accept
it – and if enough slaves do likewise, history will be
different from what it would have been had enough
slaves been like Spartacus.

But if this is the case, the original assumption
that the <1nly behaviour which the knowledge of necessity would make rational is resigned behaviour, is
false; for differences in the content of human knowledge can have real effects, and the way one interprets the world will determine the way one will
change it. Either the Stoic must admit that his advocacy of Stoicism is pointless, for the non-resigned behaviour of non-stoics is also necessary; (in
which case the belief that Instruction can change
behaviour must be abandoned); or there is no a
priori reason for thinking knowledge will lead to
resigned behaviour rather than some other kind it will depend on the content of the knowledge.

Why, if this is so, should it be assumed that knowing the world more will lead to changing it less? If
one comes to know the causes of a particular form
of human misery, and the means by which human
action could remove those causes, such knowledge
will motivate such action.

The only factual assumption which could make
sense of the stoic position would be the notion that
the human cognitive faculty is a mere observer,
epiphenomenal to processes going on in the world,
with no effects on those processes, even those of
them that are human actions. But this is an absurd
notion – we could make no sense at all’ of human action without recognising that knowledge of the world
is involved in it, at however rudimentary a level;
and the increase of knowledge through science quite
obviously increases our power over the world and
changes our behaviour towards it.

Why then is the accusation so widespread that
intellectualism and determinism lead to resignation
and passivity, while voluntarism alone justifies the
transformation of the world? Certainly it cannot
express a historical correlation, for the opposite
correlation obtains. No one has been more activist
in changing things than determinists like Mohammed,
Calvin, Cromwell and Lenin, while voluntarism has
most often been invoked to justify adaptation, ‘the
will’ being set up against our inclinations (as in
Catholicism, Kantian and Existentialist Protestantism, etc.) However, this does not worry voluntarist critics, who simply charge activistic determinists with inconsistency.

The accusation must rest on the confusion of
determinism and fatalism – often, the inability to
see that these are different, even when it is pointed
out. This inability can only rest on the dualistic
separation of the realm of human thought and the
realm of causal processes.

For example, take Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Introduction’

(actually a postscript) to his Four Essays on Liberty
He say s on page xiii:

‘I have been charged with confusing determinism
with fatalism. But this too is a complete misunderstanding. I assume that what is meant or
implied by fatalism is the view that human
decisions are mere by-products, epiphenomena,
incapable of influencing events which take their

logical – and maintaining that politics and ideology
are mere epiphenomena of economics(l).

A related confusion concerns ‘the role of the
individual in history’. Human individuals live and
act in accordance with the prinCiples of biology ,
Yet on the very next page he quotes Kant to the
psychoanalysis etc as well as of historical materialeffect that this ‘weak determinism’ (i.e. the nonism. In certain conditions, events determined by
fatalistic kind) is ‘a miserable subterfuge’. A few
these laws can have Significant historical effects pages later he is saying:

e. g. Lenin’s death and Stalin’s paranOia. This
‘Men evidently find it perfectly possible to
means that historical explanation cannot be a closed
subscribe to determinism in the study and dissystem – i.e. historical developments cannot necesregard it in their lives. Fatalism has not bred
sarily be explained purely in terms of the concepts
passivity in Moslems, nor has determinism
of historical materialism as a theoretical science.

sapped the vigour of Calvinists or Marxists,
This is not a feature specific to human history although some Marxists feared it might.

in the concrete application of any science, allowance
Practice sometimes belies profession, no
must be made for the fact that any concrete event
matter how sincerely held. ‘ (pp. xvi -xvii)
will be liable to have determinants which cannot be
He has simply collapsed determinism back into
theorized in the concepts of the theoretical science
fatalism, and attributed inconsistency to determinin question. But this ‘indeterminacy’ is relative to
ists for not acting as if they were fa taJi sts
a particular set of theoretical concepts – those of a
The doctrine of fatalism indeed makes perfectly
particular science – it can in no way make room for
good sense, and if it were true, it would indeed be
‘free will’. Thus if a doctor predicts that a patient
the case that knOwing what was ‘necessary’ (e. g.

will recover, and that patient is killed by a hospital
from a fortune-teller) would have no effects, for its
roof collapsing on him, no one thinks that this
apparent effects on behaviour would have been fated
throws doubt on the doctor’s competance, let alone
too. Thus it was precisely the action taken by Laius
on determinism.

to prevent the fulfilment of the prophesy concerning
This illusion of indeterminacy arises within histhis son Oedipus, which in fact ‘led to’ its fulfilment.

0rical materialism when e. g. the transformation of
However, as Popper has pointed out, scientific
an economic structure by political action occurs.

laws do not predict the future in this way, but rather The transformation cannot be explained within economics. Thus, the process of the socialisation of
state under what conditions particular events will
labour and the concentration of capital under capitaloccur – though Popper, absurdly enough, attributes
ism can all be accounted for within economic theory,
historical fatalism to Marxists.

but the transition from capitalist to socialist relaEngel’s law ..1
tions of production cannot – a theory of the political
is also required for that. But historical materialism
Now to return to Engels’ formulation: it may be
noted that the laws of nature and of society are put
of course includes such a theory. If indeed the conon a par here by Engels. There is a tendency for
cepts of historical materialism became inapplicable
Marxists of a voluntarist bent to see socio-historic- in revolutionary periods, that theory would be all
al laws as somehow ‘unreal’ and an effect of ‘aliena- but useless for the workers’ movement.

tion’ or ‘reification’, and to imagine that in a social- Knowing thyself
ist society there would be no such laws. Engels on
So far 1 have discussed knowledge of laws of nathe other hand while expressing a similar point
ture and society as ways to enlarge freedom. 1 now
about the collective self -direction which socialism
come to the question of individual self -knowledge or
would make possible, does not use a voluntarist
self-awareness. This could potentially have various
model of this possibility; it would consist, just as
does our freedom in relation to nature, in the ration- roles in transforming practice. It might lead in certain contexts to Stoic resignation – learning not to
al use of knowledge of laws to obtain our ends. Of
set one’s heart on what one cannot obtain. It might
course it is not a simple matter of knowledge of
also lead to self-acceptance, to admitting ‘I am like
those laws here, for within capitalist society,
that, there’s nothing that can be done about it’, and
vested interests make rational planning impossible
perhaps to the elimination of feelings of guilt about
beyond a certain point, however great the developwhat one is. Or it might lead to the effort to change
ment of knowledge of socio-economic laws. But the
what one is like, on analogy with using knowledge of
point is that where the voluntaristic Marxist sees
the outer world to change it. 1 do not want to deny
an original freedom alienating itself and producing
that each of these have their place, though all, 1
an appearance of socio-historical determinism,
think, have rather small places. What would result
Engels sees such determinism as the original realfrom self-knowledge in each given case would deity, and such freedom as is possible in this area as
pend, not on the nature of self-knowledge in general,
consisting in the knowledge and use of it. (See p331
or on any prior moral commitment, but on the conof Anti-DUhring for verification of this.)
tent of the self-knowledge in each particular case.

At this point it is perhaps worth mentioning a
However the main type of self -knowledge that 1
common confusion in Marxist theory – that between
the distinctions between economic and political prac- want to consider is that which is involved in psychoanalysis .. J’his is not the place to go into this in
tices’ and between determinism and free will.

detail, but rather to note its peculiarities and differCertainly political activity requires a conscious
ences from the possibilities mentioned above.

‘decision’ in some sense that economic does not.

Suppose in the course of analysis an analysand
From this it is often concluded that in the economic
becomes aware of a desire to kill his father. I am
realm determinism reigns, but political activity is
assuming that this is not merely a matter of acceptfree (in a voluntaristic sense). Determinist Marxism is simply equated with economistic Marxism.

1 Indeed, the greater ‘consciousness’ that characterises political
rather than economic struggle has been theorized by Lenin
Yet there is clearly a difference between maintainpreCisely in terms of the interventicm of knowledge, i. e. of
ing that there are laws governing historical proMarxist theory, without any recourse to voluntarlsm. See
What is to be Done?

cesses at all levels – economic, political and ideo19
inscrutable course independently of human
wishes. 1 have never attributed this unplausible position to any of my opponents. ‘

ing the analyst’s interpretation to the effect that he
unconsciously has this wish, but a genuine abreaction of the desire. This increase of self -awareness
will not lead him to say: ‘Well, it’s not practicable
for me to kill my father, so I shall just have to
acclimatize myself to his continued existence. ‘

Neither does he say: ‘So I’m the sort of man that
wants to kill his father! At least I won’t feel guilty
about it.’ And nor does he say: ‘How dreadful! I’m
a potential parricide. I must train myself to have
only loving thoughts towards my father. ‘ Of course
he might initially say any of these things, but the
solution is for him to recognise that the original
. situation in which the desire to kill his father was
an intelligible response has now passed, and that it
will be more satisfying to direct his energies in
other directions. It is necessary to say this because
of a particular reactionary objection to psychoanalysis, and a particular ambiguous response to it.

Many moralists when first confronted with psychoanalysis react by saying: ‘If we have all these repressed desires for incest, parricide and sexual
violence, it is better to keep them repressed.’ To
this the psychoanalyst is likely to reply: ‘The person who becomes aware of these desires is less
likely to act on them, not more. Once they are
raised to consciousness it is possible to deal with
them.’ This reply is essentially correct, but the
vagueness of the term ‘deal with’ leaves the way
open for a possible moralistic misunderstanding.

For after all, psychoanalysis is aim~d at enabling
people to fulfill desires which crippling neuroses
prevented them from fulfilling, not at reconciling
them to frustration.

The picture which the expression ‘de~l with’ may
call up is that of turning on a light (bringing the
repressed into consciousness) so that one can arrest the burglar (the unacceptable wish) that was previously concealed by the darkness. The act of
arresting the burglar then looks like an act of ‘free
will’ for which the illumination was merely a precondition. But a better analogy would be that of a
hallucination which is dispersed by the very act of
turning the light on. Actually it is not quite that
simple; better still is the analogy Freud himself
uses – the wish is like the archaeological treasures
of which Freud was so fond. Once brought into the
light of day, they are subjected to a process of
weathering, from which their previously entombment had preserved them. Moreover these repres.sed wishes which are residues of childhood do not
disappear without trace; a wish is an idea combined
with an emotive charge (cathexis). When brought
into consciousness the idea is subject to the weathering of rational criticism; the emotive energy is then
released for other purposes.

But the point I am making here is that it is the abreaction and subsequent consciousness of the wish
which is itself effective in dissipating it; it does not
merely make it vulnerable to an additional act of
free will. This is a genuine case of freedom as the
knowledge of necessity at the individual level, which
is not a mere ‘Case of resignation, self -acceptance
or self-discipline.

(The qualification ‘of necessity’ may indeed seem
superfluous and even misleading here, for it is not
primarily the causal laws that are the objects of
knowledge. It would be better to say ‘freedom is the
effectivity of knowledge within a process governed
by causal laws’.)
As I have said, I think there is a place for all the
three responses to knowledge that I have left out of
consideration above; but that place is concerned with

man’s biological being, rather than his psychologicalor social being.

In the case of self -acceptance: it is by no means
the case that one has to accept as permanent characteristics of oneself the contents of the unconscious
as revealed by psychoanalysis; however, selfknowledge is I think incompatible with, for example,
the ascetic repudiation of sexuality. The acceptance
of one’s biological being is the only attitude towards
it compatible with self-knowledge. (This in no way
implies that one need accept the use made of biological characteristics by a given culture – e. g.

gender roles.)
But there are also aspects of the realm of biological necessity which we cannot and should not
‘accept’ in any positive sense, but must nevertheless
resign ourselves to. Such are the irremedi~bly
tragic facts of transience, old age and death. There
is a sense in which acceptance without morbidity is
the only reasonable response to these facts, given
their unavoidability. But this ‘acceptance’ should
certainly not weaken the desire to struggle against
them by medical SCience, humane living conditions
and so on. Neither does it invalidate what Dylan
Thomas was saying in his poem ‘Do not go gentle
into that good night’.

Finally, there is a place here also for an element
of self-discipline, of conscious training and direction of one’s desires, based on knowledge of them
and of the real possibilities of their fulfilment,
recognising that ‘the line of least resistance’ is not
necessarily ‘the line of greatest advantage’. This
needs stressing because some critics of Freud from
a radical standpoint have disliked his insistence on
the importance of the reality -principle and a strong
ego. and have accused him of being an enemy of the
instincts, a puritan. Yet in the absepce of some
control and direction of our impulses, their satisfaction would be extremely crude and in the end selfdestructive. If I get hungry, I go and cook myself
some food; I don’t grab the neighbour’s cat and devour it raw, nor do I try to eat the book I am reading. In regard to sexual instincts, the liberation of
the pleasure-principle from the reality -prinCiple
would not be a prescription for free love, but for
rape and masturbation. This in no way means that
an anti-instinctual morality can be justified in the
name of the reality-principle. Reason is indeed the
slave of the passions. but it is the Sighted slave of
a blind master.

Knowledge and freedom
I now want to return to a point which emerges
from the manner in which knowledge liberates in the
cases of psychoanalysis and historical materialism.

In neither case is the effectivity of knowledge a
given. It depends on the distribution and organisation of psychological and social forces respectively.

In the case of psychoanalysis, the knowledge must
be accompanied by an abreaction of emotion, which
alters the organisation of the psychic forces so as
to make the previously repressed material accessible to the knOwing consciousness. That is to say,
it is not knowledge about the repressed wish which
subjects it to ‘weathering’, but the removal of the
cognitive barriers between the wish and the conscious, rational part of the mind.

In the case of historical materialism, it is not
possible for the capitalist class or its state, as long
as it upholds capitalism (as it must), to subject
social production to the rational control of society,
this can only be brought about by the workers’ state
which has expropriated the capitalists.

Thus it is not the case that al way s and everywhere knowledge is of itself effective in liberating
us. This is not some metaphysical property which
knowledge always has. That would be an idealist
illusion – or if you like, a paranoic one – ‘the
omnipotence of thought’. But it is not that knowledge -plus -something -else constitutes freedom, so
that ‘free will’ could fit in the empty place. Rather,
freedom is possible only insofar as things are so
arranged (without there necessarily being an
arranger) that such knowledge can be effective.

Of course, elements of knowledge may also be effective in bringing about a state of affairs in which
the effectivity of knowledge is increased. Thus the
workers’ knowledge of capitalist society may lead
to their activity in overthrowing it, which in turn
greatly extends tile effectivity of knowledge of
socio-economic laws.

It is now possible to give an account of the phenomenon referred to in everyday discourse as ‘free
will’ – an account which both preserves distinctions
such as free action/compulsive action, and is compatible with determinism. A person’s choices etc
are free if they are amenable to reason. So we can
say ‘he acted freely, Le. he could have done otherwise’ without either implying that he could have
escaped or did escape causal determinism, or
meaning no more than that his acting otherwise was
logically possible. It is meant that he could have
, done otherwise had good reasons been presented to
him for so dOing.

For example: Freud’s patient known as the WolfMan later underwent a second analysis by Ruth Mack
Brunswick for a monosymptomatic hypochondria,
involving the delusion that his nose was deformed
and unsightly following a minor operation (2).

Although not psychotic, and in other respects amenable to reason, nothing could persuade him that this
was not so, until the unconscious sources of his belife were made conscious. The unfreedom, the compulsiveness of this complaint consists just in this
imperviousness to reason. The raising of repressed
ideas to consciousness makes them subject to
rational criticism.

Now the Wolf-Man himself was one of those who
wanted to show that psychoanalysis and free will
were compatible; he held that once analysis had
done this work of making consciOUS, it depended on
free will what attitude the patient took to the material which had been made conscious. But given that
the urge for consistency and factual accuracy of
ideas is a characteristic of consciousness, it is
hard to see how the Wolf-Man could have chosen to
go on beli!3ving that his nose was deformed after a
successful analysiS. The efficacy of reason does not
presuppose ‘free will’ in the metaphysical sense,
though it accounts for the difference between free
and unfree action.

Another example: the statement attributed to
Martin Luther ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’,
has been The subject of some debate in the controversy over free will, as it is a case of the selfattribution of constraint in a case of an eminently
free act, in the everyday sense of ‘free’. I mention
it here as I think I can claim Luther’ s authority
(for what it is worth) for my position. Luther had
devoted a whole book to attacking the notion of free
will, so I am not impressed by those who wish to
explain away the apparently determinist implicationa
Nevertheless no one, I take it, would want to doubt
that Luther, in refusing to repudiate his doctrines,

was acting as freely as anyone ever does – as freely
as the legendary ‘smiling bridegroom’.

The solution of this supposed contradiction is
given by Luther himself: ‘Unless I am convinced by
the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason •..

I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my
conscience is captive to the Word of God.’ His
‘bondage’ was to what he thought he had good groundt:

for believing. His ‘freedom’ was his openness to

Something parallel to this amenability to reason
appears at the political level as well. There are
many humane and well-intentioned individuals who
urge us Marxists to seek change by reason rather
than by violence. They urge for instance that more
good would be done by convincing people of the desirability of preventing ecological disaster, distributing wealth more equally etc. What we accuse them
of overlooking is that there is no mechanism within
capitalist society for taking and implementing such
decisions. Capitalist politics, like the Wolf-Man’s
delUSion, is not amenable to reason. Socialism
would alter the structural determinants of the social
‘decision-making’ process in such a way as to make,
it amenable to reason.

Freedom is the efficacy of knowledge; it is extended not only by extending knowledge, but by increasing the conditions of its efficacy; and this
cannot be achieved by pure reason, but by activities
which, though rationally justifiable, are not limited
to those of reasoning.

logy & Consctb~ . .





Investigations in theory,
concrete analysis of current practices,
interviews, debates, polemic and correspondence
translations, expositions and reviews of key texts

NO. 2. AUTUMN 1977

Psychology, Prisons and Ideology
The Theory of Fetishism .in Capital
Thc Unconscious uf PsydlUanalysis
Pcchcux’s Theory of Discourse
Critical Introduction to G.B. Mead

NO. 1. MAY 1977.


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Class, I.anguagt· an,1 E,IIIl’alllln
VoloS’inov on Marxism and Linguistics

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2 See The Wolf-Man and Sigmund Freud, eel. Murlel Gardiner,


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