Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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The road to freedom

the road to freedom
It was in mid 1971 that I purchased my still-possessed copy of Bertrand Russell’s Roads to Freedom for the princely sum of 60p, helpfully also priced at 12/- for those who had not yet fully adapted to decimal currency.  It was one of a number of books which influenced my political development.

Russell set out (in the terms of the age; he wrote it in 1918, and I doubt that anyone would use some of his words and phrases in more modern times) his analysis of three alternative roads to freedom, and then concluded with some highly idealistic views of his own as a synthesis of sorts. Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism – three alternative ways of building a utopia.

The relationship between Marx and Bakunin had its moments, of course, but whilst the routes to achieve freedom and the structures of the desired free society might look very different, the essential nature of the freedom which underpins them does have some broad similarities.  Freedom from the tyranny of capital, and the replacement of competition with co-operation as a means of sharing resources are two of the essential pillars of my own political philosophy.

The extent to which national identity has any place in walking the road to freedom, or whether the only identity that really matters is class identity, is an issue which has oft divided Welsh socialists.  Certainly, many socialists have traditionally seen nationalism as a diversion from their own view of the road to freedom.

There is a quotation (which used to be used often by Plaid members) from Arthur Henderson, then Secretary of the Labour Party, who said in 1918, that
“Given self-government, Wales might establish itself as a modern Utopia”.
He was overstating the case a little, methinks.  But there is a long-held view that Wales has a more collectivist outlook than England, and thus has the potential to develop further and faster given the freedom to do so.  Attempts to build “Socialism in one country” have not exactly been entirely successful in historical terms – infamous is a more appropriate description - but that is not the same as saying that Wales could not build on its political traditions more effectively with greater freedom, to an extent at least.

(I leave aside here the question as to whether that view which we hold of ourselves as being more collectivist is still valid.  Continuing support for Labour and visceral hatred of the Tories are not at all the same thing as adherence to the values on which Labour was founded; but that’s a separate debate and it’s one where I’d probably give a different answer now than I would have given in the 1970s.)

In reality, I don’t believe that national freedom for Wales within the current paradigm is an essential step along the road to freedom, nor does it of necessity lead beyond that current paradigm.  But neither do I believe it to be a diversion, and there are aspects of the national struggle which can be building blocks for that wider journey.

Another of the seminal literary influences upon me in 1970 was Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (a comparative bargain at a mere 8/-).  And at around the same time, I read a piece by Sartre, who talked about the demand by a Basque to speak his own language as being in itself a revolutionary act.  The idea of ‘identity’ – or nationality in this context - as a searching for a more human-scale buttress against the one-dimensionalism to which capitalism is leading us became a key part of my own political outlook.

We are all shaped by the events and zeitgeist of our times, and I was as moved as anyone by the pictures of earth-rise as seen from the moon.  The idea that this earth is all that we have, and that we have to draw on its resources in a fair and sustainable way, and that that implicitly means bringing decisions and power down to a more human level, was another factor affecting my political direction.

For a number of reasons which I will not go into here, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Marxist, but I do agree with what Marx had to say about the need to combine theory and practice.  When I came to decide how to engage in political activity rather than mere philosophical interpretation, that concept of praxis was central to my thinking.  There is always a conflict between ideological purity and the potential effectiveness of a mass movement – which is how so many otherwise good socialists end up justifying their continued membership of the Labour Party – and it’s a conflict to which many of us have given different answers at different times.

My particular resolution of the question in 1971 was to join Plaid Cymru.  I wouldn’t say that I have ever truly believed that Plaid could or would go all the way to where I wanted to go, but breaking the state down into smaller units, and building a nation with which people could more readily identify and which would give them human roots as cultural beings rather than treating them as purely economic beings was a pretty good, and probably achievable, start.

Plus there was both a strong socialist strand in the party – tending to syndicalism in some ways – as well as a nascent understanding of the sustainability issue.  And, although the party was generally seen as pretty peripheral when I joined it in 1971, it had an obvious potential to my eye to become a serious political force in Wales.

It’s probably inevitable that a combination of electoral success and significant movement towards the constitutional aims creates a situation where those who see politics in terms of small change within the paradigm – or even simply in terms of a career – will come to the fore.  It parallels what happened to the Labour Party.

But I still see progress on the national question as something that can help to create the conditions in which further advance along that wider road to freedom becomes more possible.  I suspect, though, that it will take a different vehicle to make that further advance; it’s time to start looking beyond constitutional nationalism.