On Socialism And Liberty


Socialism in the UK refers to a historically legitimate broad church of left wing opinion from Marxists at one end of the spectrum to Social Democrats at the other end. Most Socialists would claim to believe in the concepts of liberty, equality & social justice.But most economic liberals, especially in the USA,  believe that all visions of Socialism are incompatible with liberty & justice – are they right?

Some Socialists believe in a narrow Marxist economic agenda but for others, and I would be one of these,  Socialism is a set of moral principles and values not a narrow economic theory. Socialism is not Marxism. To be a Socialist it is not necessary to believe in the Marxist description of historical materialism or in the Communist vision of property ownership or a Soviet model of centralised power.

Socialist ideas pre-date Marxism by hundreds of years. The word itself pre-dates Marx by decades and British political radicals have expressed what we would now recognise as Socialist values since at least the Peasants Revolt of 1381. John Ball’s famous Greenwich sermon included the following:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?[3] From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

The slogan of the French Revolution of 1789 was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and indeed similar ideals inspired by writers such as Tom Paine, inspired the American Constitution and would be familiar and very appealing to modern Socialists. Indeed, there is a strong argument that the equatiting of political freedom in the USA with free-market capitalism is a phenomenon of the Cold War. Before WWII Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933 was to all intents and purposes a Socialist programme inspired by a Keynesian vision of state intervention in a planned economy.

Some of these values that American pre-war democrats shared with the post-war British Labour Party and contemporary democratic libertarian socialists are:

  1. Human beings are first and foremost social creatures;
  2. That the common good takes priority over the interests of individuals;
  3. That we all have a duty to care for the weak and the sick;
  4. That all men are born equal and that some form of genuinely democratic government based in equality & social justice is central to any concept of human dignity;
  5. That all privileged elites based on coercive power, wealth or inherited social position are illegitimate and should be disempowered;
  6. That capitalist businesses and free market forces can be equally as oppressive as the state;
  7. And indeed that democratically elected governments can and should take on the role of protector of citizens from the worst of the tyrannical affects of capitalist exploitation;
  8. That the state, on behalf of democratic citizens, can and should own and manage the common infrastructures vital to modern life: health, education, water, sewerage, roads, railways, telephones and power;
  9. That the state has a significant part to play in managing and planning the economy.

These central Socialist values are contained in the three concepts of liberty, equality & social justice. But Socialists don’t just believe in a procedural version of these concepts i.e. that theoretically anybody can get rich in a capitalist society so therefore it is fair; no, Socialists believe that society should be free and fair in practice as well as in theory.

Contemporary liberal thought sees the concepts of liberty, equality and justice as contradictory. They would argue that freedom, especially economic freedom, necessarily results in inequality of outcomes and that freedom trumps equality as a moral value, thus inequality is a side effect of a free society that we just have to live with. There are then subsidiary arguments about the value of inequality as precondition of a competitive stimulus to ambition and thus to economic and technological progress but here we will concentrate on the main idea that freedom and justice are incompatible with equality.

Lets look at justice and equality first. Surely, any concept of justice that does not entail at least some notion of equality is self-defeating. If a law is to be just it must be applied equally to all regardless of age, race, creed, wealth or social position etc. If it is not applied in this way it is not justice it is simply the assertion of brute power. Indeed, throughout most of legal history that is exactly what happened. In ancient Greece, democracy and equality before the law were universal – if you were a free man. If you were a foreigner, a woman, a child or a slave you had very limited rights under the law and the coercive forces of law and order would deal you with you far more harshly than a free citizen. Similarly, in 18th Century Europe the law was basically a tool for protecting the security and property interests of a wealthy aristocracy. There are still some, especially in the USA, who seriously argue that as the acquisition of property and wealth is the purpose of freedom then the primary duty of the law should be to protect the property of the rich from plunder by the poor; to protect the interests of the “haves” against the interests of the “have nots” – rather than protect all citizens from oppression and injustice.

It is perfectly possible to make this argument on the basis of a pragmatic belief in wealth as a motivating force for entrepreneurs and on a “trickle down” theory of wealth redistribution – i.e. the wealthy employ servants thus providing employment for the idle. But it seems very difficult to make the argument on the basis of any modern concept of social justice based in equal human rights.

Lets move onto liberty and equality. I will argue that liberty and equality are entirely consistent and indeed mutually dependent – the individual is a social concept and without individuals there is no society, and that the freedom of individuals is central to the higher aim of the collective good.

For me, the primary duty of a free citizen, in a free country, is to think for them selves; to make their own moral choices based on conscience and principle. But I also believe that human-beings are first & foremost social animals who have always, and will always, live together in social communities; and that central to the experience of a happy, healthy human-being is working collaboratively with others for the common good.

Businesses, governments, societies and communities work by sharing knowledge, experience, effort and resources in furtherance of the common good. But in any community, commercial or civic, there are almost always conflicting visions of the common good and even if agreement on the nature of specific common goods can be reached there are then usually conflicting visions of how the desired common good can be achieved.

These disagreements are not irrational nor need they be divisive but for a community to benefit from the input of all the free expression of dissent has to be not only allowed but encouraged.

Group Think is part of the human condition and can be profoundly irrational. Psychologists and sociologists have carried out numerous experiments that clearly demonstrate the human tendency to obey orders and agree with the majority without evaluating the opinions and propositions of the majority or the justice of the orders. Throughout human history Group Think has been responsible for tragedy upon tragedy. Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Emperors New Clothes, is perhaps the most famous fictional expression of Group Think where the most obvious fallacy is heralded by all and sundry as a magnificent truth. In Anderson’s version it is the innocent child who exposes the Group Think, humiliating the King and the courtiers in front of the peasants. (In real life of course the child would have been taken away from his mother and slaughtered.) Perhaps If the king had allowed honest scepticism and dissent in his court a loyal dissident may have warned him of the lies of his tailors and courtiers.

Tom Paine (1737-1809) once said “It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from his government.”

Dr Richard Price (1723-1791) expressed another version of the same idea as, “The first concern of lovers of our country must be to enlighten it.”

These quotes encapsulate the idea that scepticism and dissent are not necessarily signs of subversive intent. It is perfectly possible to be critical of the words and actions of individuals, organisations or nation states while remaining loyal and committed to the aims of those agents. Indeed, the Paine & Richards quotes take the idea further and suggest that it is the moral duty of a loyal citizen to evaluate, analyse and question the policies and statements of their rulers and make their insights public. (For further reading on this see Why Societies Need Dissent By Cass Sunstein)

Those economic Liberals, who claim that equality and liberty are incompatible and that only free markets can guarantee political freedom, often point to Soviet style communist regimes as examples of how collectivism and egalitarian ideas necessarily result in totalitarianism and the suppression of individual freedom.

The first thing a Socialist would say in reply to this is that ordinary citizens should fear the tyranny of social convention and the free market as much as the totalitarian state.

But secondly that freedom of expression is not incompatible with collective endeavour on the contrary it is crucial to it’s success, that the phenomenon of the dissenting citizen is perfectly compatible with Socialism, that in fact it is essential to the long-term success of any democratic society whether capitalist or socialist and whether at the level of a local community, the nation state or trans national organisations such as the UN or NATO.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

2 responses to “On Socialism And Liberty

  1. Marxist Hypocrisy 101

    Your “argument” is half “True Scotsman”, half presentist revisionism.

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