A response to "A short critique of Stallmanism"

As always, I am writing these entries in order to solidify and formulate my opinions. I may end up reversing opinions of what I write. I hope that by writing this out I may have a better understanding then the general mutterings which pass through my brain on occasion. Let us begin.

Before reading, take a look at Flowing System's "A short critique of Stallmanism". It lives up to its name, shouldn't take you long.

Summary of Article.

Free software philosophy is emancipatory. The philosophy's ideal is a world without (or with very little) proprietary software. Stallman's approach to proprietary software is to provide an alternative lifestyle which relies on free software instead of proprietary software. This is problematic because:

  1. Asking people to change their lifestyle is not very effective. Are they idealistically waiting for everyone in the world to realize how great free software is?

  2. The way they are asking people to change their lifestyle is not very effective. It promotes elitism. Advertising on a lesser known virtue

  3. The reasons given to use free software are often inconsistent with the end goal of emancipation.

  4. There is very little public knowledge of the free software movement.

  5. The free software movement is too narrow in scope. They do not argue for the socialist society that is consistent with their world view on software.

  6. The FSF tries to change only the usage of software and not the entire society producing that software.

First, I'm sure Stallman would take issue with calling the free software foundation's philosophy "Stallmanism". I have no idea what he would say... something along the lines of "Free Software Philosophy + Stallmanism". OK, I jest. I don't think it matters too much, I hear you: "Get on with it!"

"Free software, at it's core is an emancipatory philosophy"

Sounds good.

However, his approach, and the approach of some organizations and individuals drawing inspiration from and collaborating with him, contains a crucial mistake: confounding individual virtue and purity with wider social liberation.

I'm not sure the movement actually confounds these things. There definitely is an individualist component to the movement. Users are encouraged to use free software, but Stallman and crew do more than that.

They provide free software versions of software that doesn't already exist freely. "This", you say, "requires the individual to choose to use the free software they create". And you're right, but it is a concrete step to providing a full ecosystem of free software. With the creation of an ecosystem the amount of effort required to use free software is diminished.

We have already seen free software appear to dominate the norm in the software development world. And this has started to spill over into the non-developer world. Applications like Sumatra PDF, VLC, and GIMP have gained access to the common user's hard drive. (There is a separate question about the conditions under which, if any, free software will succeed against proprietary software. I will write about this elsewhere.)

The article makes the case that wider social liberation is required and that individual lifestyle changes are impractical. I do not expect the author to explain how to achieve social liberation, for if someone knew of a good way we would already have our freedom, but instead I ask the author to recognize that social liberation requires some amount of effort on the part of the individual. Is asking people to change the software they use more or less effective than asking them to participate in some yet undiscovered method of social emancipation. So long as the effort is less, then it makes no sense to critique the movement for selecting the easier path for progress (unless one makes the argument that the temporary progress inhibits global progress. This reminds me of Accelerationism, but I could be wrong.)

One place where you will see Stallman emphasize individual virtue is on social networks. These services make life more difficult for users who choose not to use them. And yes this is ineffective.

[Stallman is] promoting a type of technological asceticism by using, and encouraging others use, only free software for every conceivable purpose: from applications to firmware.


In general, this approach is evocative of, and indeed stems from, the familiar liberal ideological mistake of lifestylism: the belief that changes in one's own personal preferences are the beginning and end of political action.

Related, is this critique.

how is ignoring your enemies' existence going to change the fact it exists?

But the article presents no evidence Stallman believes it is the "beginning and end" of political action. Yes, he certainly promotes his eccentric lifestyle based around these ideals, but this is not his only front.

  • For example consider GPL v3, which now contains a protection against tivoization.

  • Or read the FSF's recommendation to use the full GPL over the LGPL. Why not LGPL?

  • The FSF has multiple campaigns targeting Microsoft. How effective are they? That's another question.

  • The GPL has an upgrade clause. You can hear Stallman's minor attack on Microsoft using the upgrade from GPLv2 to GPLv3 here. I'm far from an expert on the Microsoft/Novell deal, but this is not a man who has forgotten his enemies exist.