Excerpt from:

Communism and
Jeffersonian Democracy

By Bob Avakian



Freedom of Conscience as Private Property, “The Free Market Place of Ideas”—and a Radically Different and Far More Unfettered Search for the Truth

Furthermore, for Jefferson—and this was true as well for James Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution—rights such as freedom of speech and the basic philosophical concept of freedom of conscience were bound up with the notion of the inviolability of private property. Kramnick and Moore point to something which I also noted in a short pamphlet, “U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters’ Vision of Freedom”: Madison regarded the protection of property as one of the most essential functions of the state—and it is important to underline here again that for Madison, and in the U.S. for nearly a hundred years, one of the most important forms of that property was human beings, slaves. Madison, of course, was himself a slaveowner and a defender of the slave system; at the same time, he was also a more general, or “universal,” advocate of the rights of private property. Kramnick and Moore go on to make the point that, for Madison as well as Jefferson, “opinions and conscience were also sacred forms of individual property.” (The Godless Constitution, p. 103)

This is an extremely important point, and we should pause and examine this briefly. This of course is bound up with the whole idea that is encapsulated in the phrase we hear so often: “the free market place of ideas.” This has the virtue, if you will, of being rather explicit in its terms—it is a clear indication that this notion of individual conscience and of the expression of ideas is bound up with concepts of market principles, private ownership of commodities and ultimately capitalism and its particular categories of commodity exchange.7

We see this standing out very directly and starkly today in all the battles, not only in the U.S. (or other particular countries) but on an international scale, over “intellectual property.” And, of course, this is not merely a matter of legal abstraction but something which dramatically impacts the lives of great numbers of people. This happens, for example, when large agro-business firms based in the U.S. (or some other imperialist country) develop a genetically-engineered basis for producing a certain crop, and then they work to impose that means of agriculture on farmers not only in the U.S. itself but in other countries as well, disrupting and supplanting the more traditional ways of producing food, and in fact making it impossible for these farmers to continue agriculture in the traditional way, forcing them instead to pay the agro-business firm which owns these “intellectual property rights,” in order to again produce the genetically-engineered agricultural product—to, in effect, rent the ability to carry out such reproduction, as this has now become the “intellectual property” of a gigantic corporation based in a country like the U.S. Millions of people’s lives, and food production on a large scale, have been disrupted and even ruined through this process. From this and other examples we can see that it is not just a matter of an abstract theoretical concept of opinions and conscience being sacred forms of individual property. This has tremendous and devastating consequences for masses of people, millions and even hundreds of millions of people—and, at least indirectly, billions of people—throughout the world.

But let’s speak to the philosophical concept of “the free market place of ideas” and how that contrasts with the communist view of the pursuit of the truth and the contention of opposing ideas as an essential part of the pursuit of the truth. Here we come around to John Stuart Mill and his concept of liberty and in particular freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas.8 In a certain way we could say to this: Mill—yes, and no. From our point of view, the communist point of view, it is crucial to actually understand reality, in its motion and development, in order to be able to transform it increasingly in the interests of the broad masses of people and ultimately of humanity as a whole. Further, there is a need for the contestation of different ideas, and different approaches to understanding reality, in order to get most deeply to a correct understanding of that reality. And, yes, there is the very important principle that people should feel free and encouraged to express their ideas and not feel a heavy breath breathing down on them if their ideas are non-conformist or unconventional, or go up against the status quo, whatever that status quo might be. That is actually an important principle that we should understand deeply and uphold and fight for. At the same time, however, from the communist point of view, this is all part of a process of not just a few individuals but of masses of people getting to the truth of things, in many different particular spheres and in a larger sense, and being able to act in accordance with an actual, scientific understanding of reality—of reality as it really is, so to speak (and as it is moving and changing). But the notion of opinions and conscience as individual or private property ultimately—and often not so ultimately—gets in the way of, and poses a significant obstacle to, that process of pursuing the truth.

Understanding the importance of the “battle of ideas,” of not suppressing unpopular or unconventional thinking, in order to have the richest process in seeking an understanding of reality, and in order for the people in society to feel that they have air to breathe and room to be “different” and to express different ideas: this is a crucial dimension of the kind of society that we want to live in and that masses of people would really thrive in; and it is also crucial in order to arrive at the truth in fundamental terms. But there is a vast difference, a crucial distinction, between that and the notion that any individual’s ideas are her/his private property and should in effect operate in competition with other people and their ideas—that all this should contest in a “market place of ideas” to see which one can, to put it rather baldly, command the highest exchange value. This is not the same as determining which one actually contributes the most to getting to the truth, and is not simply an appreciation of the way in which the contestation of ideas will help to create the right atmosphere for the kind of society we want, but it gives expression to the notion of ideas as commodities, competing to command a greater remuneration, in one way or another (even if this is not always directly monetary). So, too, the notions and the practice of “intellectual property rights” are an extension of, or are bound up with, the idea of “the free market place of ideas.”

All this flows from the philosophical concept of opinions and conscience as private property. And when you have individuals holding ideas as private property, the greater social good is going to be interfered with and hindered, just as it is generally in the production and exchange of commodities. People will hold back their ideas if they think it will benefit them to not bring them forward at a given time. Everybody who is familiar, for example, with copyrighting (and patents) knows the ways in which people who come forward with inventive ideas will jealously guard them, lest somebody else steal them—or, on the other hand, will rush to institutionalize them as protected private property, before someone else does the same. And there are many stories of how individuals have brought forward creative ideas, only to have them grabbed up by more powerful forces, such as corporations, which end up with the “rights” to them. All this is an expression of a situation where people are in competition with each other—and ultimately an expression of a society which tends toward turning everything, including ideas, into commodities and into capital.

Even where this doesn’t take a crude monetary expression, philosophically the concept of this being my idea—as opposed to an idea which is important in a larger context and ultimately for humanity—can cause real harm, and in this kind of atmosphere, in this overall framework of capitalist commodity relations, there can be, and often is, real conflict between the individual’s profiting from his/her ideas and society and humanity as a whole benefitting from these ideas.

This outlook and approach of ideas as personal possessions, or private property—as commodities—has negative influences and consequences not only in terms of how people treat ideas that they come up with, but also how they view mixing it up with other people in the realm of working with, and wrangling over, ideas. Again, even leaving aside direct or more crude monetary considerations, to put it in somewhat psychological terms, your ego gets involved in it. Is what’s important what is actually true and whether your ideas contribute to people understanding things, and being able to act on that basis in the fundamental interests of humanity—or is what’s important the fact, or the notion, that something is your idea? There’s hardly anyone, if there is anyone, who has not experienced these kinds of narrow and more self-centered sentiments or pulls—and, yes, sad to say, but not surprisingly, this is so even among the ranks of the communists. But, again, all this does a great deal of actual harm, and works against the larger interests of society and humanity.

So, returning to John Stuart Mill, there is a great difference between the positive side of John Stuart Mill, as represented in his arguments that ideas should not be suppressed because they are unpopular—that it is very important that people hear ideas articulated not merely by those who oppose them, however fairly they may strive to characterize them, but by those who are ardent advocates of those ideas—there is a profound difference between that principle, which has important application and is something that must be a part of the overall process of revolution, radically transforming society and advancing to a communist world, and on the other hand the notion of the “free market place of ideas.” The contention over ideas, and the overall development of ideas, should be unfettered by notions and by realities of markets, of competition and commodity relations, of capital. As I have pointed out before,9 we do need to talk about the limitations, problems and errors in the cultural works that were produced during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China; but, besides the very high artistic quality and the revolutionary content of many of those works, one of the truly great things about the creation of these works was that it was explicitly—and very enthusiastically on the part at least many of the people involved—a process that consciously strove to overcome notions of individual ownership of ideas, including artistic creation. It is not that individuals and their creativity were unimportant and made no contribution in the creation of these works, but they were so and did so as part of a larger process, and not in accordance with—in fact in direct opposition to—the notion of ideas as private property.

Now, to be clear, there are a lot of ways in which, in order to have the best atmosphere and circumstances for creativity to flower and be expressed—and in order to have the kind of society in which people can increasingly thrive, individually as well as in their mutual interaction—you do have to not only recognize in a general sense but give the necessary scope to individual initiative and creativity. There does have to be a significant dimension in which people can go off and “do their own thing.” I asked a poet and spoken word artist, in the course of a conversation with him: “Could you write your poetry if you had a party cadre standing over your shoulder examining it at every point?” And he answered emphatically: “No fucking way!” Well, there is a definite reality to that, and the kind of society and world we want is not one in which there would be that kind of misplaced “political supervision” (“let’s check to make sure that everything is in accord with the ‘party line’ or what leadership thinks at every given point”...NO!). There should be room, there must be room, expansive space for a lot of creativity, and certainly for unconventional and non-conformist creativity, including that which goes up against whatever are the prevailing ideas and “norms” in a socialist society at any given time. But that can be developed on a much broader scale and in a much richer way the more it is increasingly unfettered from the “free market place of ideas,” the exchange of commodities in the realm of ideas, and the notion, ultimately, of opinions and conscience being sacred forms of individual private property.

Without lapsing into post-modernist theories of literature, and so on—in which basically the text has no intrinsic meaning and instead it means whatever anybody reads into it, and so there are multitudes of meaning, all equally legitimate—it is a fact that with regard to works of art, except for those that are literally created by the artist only for himself or herself (which are decidedly a small minority of such works), most of them are meant to go out to the world to make some kind of statement or other—however the artist understands that. In general, works of art are meant to interact with people and to affect people in various ways. And that can be done much more fully and richly while on the one hand, yes, giving a lot of scope to individual initiative and creativity, but at the same time breaking all this loose from notions and practices that embody the “free market place of ideas,” commodity production and exchange, and the competition that goes along with that—and the thinking that’s bound up with that.

So, yes, there must be in socialist society—and in communist society—a recognition of the importance of individual conscience, and of the right, and fundamentally of the need, for people to create various works of literature and art which embody and give life to different particular ways of “coming at” reality (or a part of reality), different modes of “individual expression.” There is an important role for that, and there must be a broad scope for that—both as something that’s important in itself and also, in a deeper sense, as part of the overall process of coming to understand the world in increasingly richer ways and continuing to transform it in accordance with the largest interests of humanity. All this is part of the objective of advancing to—and then continuing to advance in—the radically new era of communism. But this is very different from—and will be much more fully expressed the more that it moves beyond—notions of individual conscience and individual creativity as private property—which inevitably means in conflict and competition with other embodiments of private property.

Just as, in an overall and fundamental sense, the advance to communism means, and must mean, moving beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right—beyond the sphere of commodity production and exchange and everything bound up with that, including in the realm of ideas—it must mean moving beyond bourgeois right in relation to individuality, individual conscience, individual ideas, and individual creativity. This does not mean suffocating or arbitrarily restricting this, but on the contrary giving much greater expression to it, while approaching all this on a radically new and qualitatively different basis, breaking free and far beyond the historically limited and, in comparison with what has now become possible, the paltry principles of “the free market place of ideas” and the notion—which Madison and Jefferson upheld—of opinions and conscience as sacred forms of individual property.



7. As pointed to earlier, capitalist commodity production and exchange—and this is a defining feature of capitalism, which distinguishes it from other forms of commodity production and exchange—includes the exchange of labor power (the ability to work) for wages, a relation which involves the right of the capitalist to employ the labor power of the wage-workers in production, and to appropriate the products produced in this process. During this process of production, through the employment and use of labor power, more value is created by the workers than is paid to them in wages: it is a unique quality of the particular commodity, labor power, to be able to create additional value through its use, and this surplus value (what is produced by the workers in the course of working, beyond the value equal to their wages) is the source of capitalist profit and of the ability of the capitalists to invest on an expanded scale. [back]

8. The reference here is to John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. A discussion of Mill’s concept of liberty—and specifically his views on the contestation of ideas—is found in my book Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Banner Press, New York, 1986); see in particular Chapter 7, “Democracy and the Communist Revolution.” [back]

9. See, for example, “Art and Artistic Creation—Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity,” in Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Insight Press, Chicago, 2005, pp. 103–106. [back]