Memories and Challenges
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else, if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, some one else would lead you out. YOU MUST USE YOUR HEADS AS WELL AS YOUR HANDS, and get yourself out of your present condition.
-- Eugene V. Debs, 1910
I have tried to do two things in this text. One is to suggest that the quest for abstract freedom will always be elusive: that our freedoms are always and necessarily conditioned by nature, by law, and by society. I have also explored the nature of our freedoms in the hope that we can understand some of the trade-offs involved when we change the conditions of our liberties.
When constraints weigh on us like shackles, we struggle against them using the rhetoric of freedom and inalienable rights to rally our troops around us. That rhetoric is a necessary part of change, but it is not a substitute for reason. Ultimately, we must engage the material and social conditions that restrict us if we are to devise institutions that are more free than those we have today. This is an intellectual endeavor and it requires that we explain why the usual blandishments regarding liberty of contract are insufficient to enable us to achieve greater results. In this challenge we face a long and rich intellectual tradition that has been used to constrain the forces of change, and sometimes, it must be admitted, correctly so. Nonetheless, the proposition that liberty of contract has been insufficient in improving the position of workers is a proposition requiring an unblushing defense.
History reminds us that collective action has been essential in our struggle for freedom. It also reminds us that collective action invariably threatens individual liberties; that to act collectively is to attempt to bind individuals