What Kinds of Liberal Freedoms Should Democratic Socialists Support? - Areo (2023)

One of the biggest controversies on the contemporary left today concerns the relationship between leftism and liberalism. People often use the word liberalism to refer to a location on the political spectrum: to the left of conservatism, but to the right of, say, democratic socialism (or even robust economic populism). In that sense, leftists are, by definition, not liberals. But the word liberalism can also refer to the school of thought that embraces classical liberal rights, such as freedom of speech. Are leftists liberals in that sense of the word? Do they embrace classical liberal rights? They are often accused of being insufficiently committed to freedom of speech, at least when it gets in the way of other left-wing goals. The example most often cited to support this accusation is cancel culture, which, some argue, is a leftist phenomenon that has a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas. We’ve both chimed in before to argue that cancel culture is not a product of leftism, and that the best version of the left rejects it. But, here, we want to set aside that debate, and instead make a robust general defence of our belief that leftists—including democratic socialists—should embrace certain classical liberal freedoms, particularly freedom of speech.

As Karl Marx puts it, the “ruling ideas” of every society are “the ideas of the ruling class.” So a transition to socialism can only succeed if people’s ideas can be changed. But it will be impossible to persuade people to consider new ideas unless we protect the right to dissent. In the United States, support for workers’ rights has always gone hand in hand with support for free speech. We can see this in everything from the free speech fights waged by the radical labour unionists of the Industrial Workers of the World at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the struggle against the McCarthy era blacklist, to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, which helped give birth to the New Left. But socialists should not care only about protecting the right to dissent for themselves, or for the purpose of bringing about radical change. They should see the right to dissent as a hugely important part of any vision of a socialist future worth fighting for.

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Of course, valuing free speech doesn’t necessarily entail being absolutist about it. For example, when YouTube deplatforms content creators because of their views, it’s possible to object to that without insisting that YouTube must never deplatform anyone for any reason. One could advocate, instead, that YouTube develop and enforce transparent, consistent rules (accompanied by meaningful due process protections) that err on the side of free expression, but allow for deplatforming in cases of harassment, incitement to violence and the like. Many of the great classical liberal thinkers, from John Stuart Mill to Karl Popper to Herbert Marcuse, have agreed on the general value of free speech without taking an absolutist position. But it’s not our intention here to debate where the outer limits of tolerance should be set. Instead, we want to push back against two points of view: against those on the right who see liberal freedoms as obstacles to socialists’ pursuit of a more equal society, and against those on the left who have become far too dismissive of such freedoms, denigrating what they call freeze peach as a value that only bigots and bad faith actors could espouse. We see ourselves as part of a tradition of left-wing radicals who have supported the rights of individuals to express themselves freely; it is a non-negotiable part of our vision of a more just, equal and democratic form of social life. While we agree that liberal freedoms sometimes have to give way to other values—as when freedom of movement is curtailed to stop the spread of disease during a pandemic—we believe that such restrictions should always be approached with caution. It is in keeping with the best traditions of the socialist left to weigh liberal rights very heavily in such calculations.

Why Are Liberal Freedoms Important?

Liberal political thought has provided a rich set of justifications for personal freedom. Many of them are deontological: John Locke and Immanuel Kant, for example, argue that the individual’s freedom of expression is an innate right and a matter of personal dignity, and that therefore neither the state nor any other party should interfere with it. Contractualist philosophers like John Rawls take another approach, arguing that, if we were to think through what we’d be willing to accept in a social contract, we’d realize that no rational person would enter into a society in which her basic liberties were alienated and she was unable to pursue her vision of the good life—thus, any just and fair liberal society has to respect those freedoms. Finally, thinkers like Karl Popper and John Stuart Mill take a more consequentialist tack. They link the protection of liberal freedoms to the scientific pursuit of certainty in politics and morals. By granting people the freedom to express and pursue their differing visions of the good life—to engage in “experiments in living,” as Mill puts it—society can gradually improve over time. Popper and Mill also express (in a consequentialist way) concerns similar to those that animate deontological thinkers. Mill stresses that the expressive liberties we need in order to engage in experiments in living are important, not just because they allow us to learn from other people’s experiences, but because preventing someone from expressing her personality and beliefs makes that person unhappy. Mill believed that an individual’s happiness is important, and that it is best served when the individual herself is sovereign over her own mind and body. As he puts it in On Liberty:

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That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

Any consistent liberalism must be supportive, not only of free expression, but also of diversity. First, because it is an inevitable consequence of the individual’s exercise of her personal freedom. But also because everyone benefits from social diversity, since it presents us with a rich array of possible paths we might take in pursuit of happiness. (And we should value diversity of opinion as much as we do all other kinds.) When conservatives like Tucker Carlson lament the decline in cultural and ethnic homogeneity that we see in twenty-first century societies, they are not standing up for liberal values; they’re speaking out against them.

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Which Liberal Freedoms Should Democratic Socialists Support?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is complex. Nominally, liberals and socialists are committed to many of the same principles, including the moral equality of all individuals and the importance of emancipation. Nevertheless, liberals and socialists disagree on the best route to equality—though the spectrum of opinions is broader than one might expect. J. S. Mill himself was at least socialism-curious, writing in his Principles of Political Economy that, if the development of freedom continued into the future, the “relations of masters and work-people” would be superseded, first by the greater empowerment of workers and then, “perhaps finally,” by “the association of labourers among themselves.” George Orwell wrote passionately on behalf of democratic socialism and against statist tyranny, seeing the struggle for one and against the other as inextricably linked. More recently, liberal philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Chantal Mouffe have argued that a real commitment to freedom entails securing high levels of material and social equality.

Early socialists were deeply committed to all the classical liberal freedoms except the right to private ownership of the means of production. Indeed, they argued that people are far more meaningfully free when they don’t live in a society so savagely unequal that some can afford to buy their own printing presses, while others have to worry about being fired if they say the wrong thing. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a passionate advocate of freedom of expression, and the young Karl Marx decried the evils of press censorship. He was, after all, a newspaper editor.

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Unfortunately, though, other passages in Marx’s writing led some socialists to think that “bourgeois rights” were unimportant because they represented a merely formal kind of freedom. Later Marxist-Leninists interpreted Marx as arguing that such formal freedoms were unimportant or unnecessary, and used that as justification for some of the most brutal totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Fortunately, recent scholarship by writers like Igor Shoikhedbrod has foregrounded the many ways in which Marx sought to go beyond liberal freedoms, rather than supplant them. Marx himself shared in the modernist belief that the best kind of society is one in which each person is free to develop her personality, a freedom that is only secured when everyone is free. This belief echoes J. S. Mill’s ethic of individual self-expression. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, “the free development of each” is inextricably bound up with “the free development of all.” In other words, ending the domination of one economic class by another enables us to have a society in which everyone’s basic needs are met, no one lives in fear of angering an unelected boss, and everyone has the leisure to develop their individual capacities. Telling people that they’re free to engage in “experiments with living” doesn’t do them much good if they have to kowtow to a boss and struggle to keep their heads above water financially. It’s a lot like telling graduate students in physics departments that they’re free to perform experiments—as long as they pay for their own particle accelerators. At its best, the democratic socialist vision amounts to a proposal for fully funded experiments in speech and living.

There is a strong case, then, for a democratic socialism that respects and even broadens our commitment to liberal freedom of expression. Such a vision doesn’t need to be understood as some utopia of human perfection. A society in which democracy has been extended to the workplace might turn out to be full of interpersonal conflict and tension between different political factions—or worse. Anyone who’s ever lived in a co-op apartment building knows that democracy can be messy. But in such a society, liberal rights would have more meaning. For example, in our society, Jeff Bezos’ freedom of expression is a lot greater than that of his employees: he owns the Washington Post, while those who work in his warehouses barely have the time and energy to post a few thoughts on Facebook pages—and only a few dozen friends and relatives will read those posts. In a society in which everyone was on a far more equal footing when engaging in political discussion and debate, rights like freedom of speech could not only be guaranteed, but would be far more meaningful.

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Related Topics
  • Democratic Socialism
  • Free Speech
  • Liberal Values
  • The Left


What is liberal democratic socialism? ›

Democratic socialism is defined as having a socialist economy in which the means of production are socially and collectively owned or controlled alongside a liberal democratic political system of government. Democratic socialists reject most self-described socialist states and Marxism–Leninism.

What do the Democratic Socialists of America believe? ›

The DSA regards the abolition of capitalism and the realization of socialism as a gradual long-term goal, therefore the organization focuses its immediate political energies on reforms within capitalism that empower working people while decreasing the power of corporations.

Can you have a socialist democracy? ›

Socialist democracy is a political system that aligns with principles of both socialism and democracy. It includes ideologies such as council communism, democratic socialism, and Soviet democracy, as well as Marxist democracy like the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was embodied in the Soviet system (1917–1991).

Do Social Democrats believe in equality of outcome? ›

Social democrats support equality of outcome to a much lesser extent than revolutionary socialists, favouring equality of opportunity instead. Some see equality of outcome to be desirable but unachievable, instead they opt for the “inevitability of gradualness” as Beatrice Webb called for.

What is an example of liberal democracy? ›

For example, in the United States 2/3 of states require their citizens to provide identification to vote, these states also provide state IDs for free. The decisions made through elections are made not by all of the citizens but rather by those who are members of the electorate and who choose to participate by voting.

What are the Liberal Democrats beliefs? ›

The Liberal Democrats have an ideology that draws on both the liberal and social democratic traditions. The party is primarily social liberal, supporting redistribution but sceptical of increasing the power of the state, emphasising the link between equality and liberty.

What does a socialist believe in? ›

Socialism is a left-wing economic philosophy and movement encompassing a range of economic systems characterized by the dominance of social ownership of the means of production as opposed to private ownership.

What is the main goal of socialists? ›

A primary goal of socialism is social equality and a distribution of wealth based on one's contribution to society, and an economic arrangement that would serve the interests of society as a whole.

What are the 3 types of socialism? ›

Socialist ideologies
  • Utopian socialism.
  • Communism.
  • Marxism.

What is good about socialism? ›

Additional benefits of Socialism: Nationalization of key industries, redistribution of wealth, social security schemes, minimum wages, employmentprotection and trade union recognition rights.

What are examples of socialists? ›

Marxist–Leninist states
People's Republic of China1 October 1949Communist Party of China
Republic of Cuba24 February 1976Communist Party of Cuba
Lao People's Democratic Republic2 December 1975Lao People's Revolutionary Party
Socialist Republic of Vietnam2 September 1945Communist Party of Vietnam

What's the difference between democratic socialism and social democracy? ›

In contrast to social democracy's mixed economy, democratic socialists advocate a post-capitalist economic system based on either a market economy combined with workers' self-management or on some form of participatory, decentralized planning of the economy.

Do liberals support equality? ›

Liberals have advocated gender and racial equality in their drive to promote civil rights and a global civil rights movement in the 20th century achieved several objectives towards both goals. Other goals often accepted by liberals include universal suffrage and universal access to education.

Do socialists agree over society? ›

Although all socialists agree that society should be much more equal, there is significant disagreement over how to achieve it and what exactly it would mean.

Do socialists agree on equality? ›

Equality is undoubtedly the defining goal of socialism. The rallying cry of equality has been heard from many a socialist throughout the ages. However, we must be clear on the meaning of equality. Socialists favour a more equal distribution of wealth and income within society.

What are examples of liberal ideas? ›

The fundamental liberal ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, the right to due process and equality under the law are widely accepted as a common foundation of liberalism.

What is the difference between democracy and liberal democracy? ›

A representative democracy is an indirect democracy where sovereignty is held by the people's representatives. A liberal democracy is a representative democracy with protection for individual liberty and property by rule of law.

What is an example of a liberal person? ›

Someone who is liberal tends to stray from the societal norm, or supports social justice and activist movements. For example, someone who doesn't believe in gender norms and wants to deconstruct masculinity and femininity could be labeled as liberal, or having a liberal perspective on gender.

What is socialism in simple words? ›

Socialism is, broadly speaking, a political and economic system in which property and the means of production are owned in common, typically controlled by the state or government. Socialism is based on the idea that common or public ownership of resources and means of production leads to a more equal society.

What is a socialist in simple terms? ›

Socialism is an economic and political system where the workers or the government own the buildings and tools that make goods and services like farms and factories. This can be achieved through decentralized and direct worker-ownership, or through centralized state-ownership of the means of production.

What do you mean by socialist? ›

A socialist is someone who supports a political or economic philosophy that says society as a whole, rather than private companies, should own or control various goods and services. The word socialist has become so politicized that it can be hard to define accurately.

What are the 3 main goals of socialism? ›

Socialist Theory

Below are some of the key tenets of socialism: Public or collective ownership of the means of production. Central planning of the economy. Emphasis on equality and economic security.

What are the 3 main economic goals in a socialist society? ›

Socialists generally aim to achieve greater equality in decision-making and economic affairs, grant workers greater control of the means of production and their workplace and to eliminate exploitation by directing the surplus value to employees.

What are the 4 characteristics of socialism? ›

Socialist ideals include production for use, rather than for profit; an equitable distribution of wealth and material resources among all people; no more competitive buying and selling in the market; and free access to goods and services.

What country is an example of socialism? ›

China (People's Republic of China) North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) Cuba (Republic of Cuba) Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnam)

How does socialism affect society? ›

A socialist economy features social rather than private ownership of the means of production. It also typically organizes economic activity through planning rather than market forces, and gears production towards needs satisfaction rather than profit accumulation.

What is the opposite of socialism? ›

The opposite of socialism is capitalism.

What are some examples of democracy? ›

Democracy Countries 2022
CountryCategoryFunctioning of Govt.
AustraliaFull Democracy8.57
NetherlandsFull Democracy9.29
TaiwanFull Democracy9.64
SwitzerlandFull Democracy8.57
46 more rows

Which countries are democratic socialist? ›

Currently represented
PartyCountry% of popular vote in the latest election
The LeftSlovenia4.46% (2022)
The LeftGermany4.9% (2021)
Socialist PartyNetherlands6% (2021)
Socialist Party of SerbiaSerbia11.79 (2022)
37 more rows

What are the 5 main characteristics of socialism? ›

Features and Characteristics of Socialism
  • Public Ownership.
  • Planned Economy.
  • Classes of Society.
  • State is responsible for basic necessities of life.
  • Equal Opportunity to all.
  • Non-existence of competition and limited choice of consumer products.
  • Pricing Mechanism.

Which best describes a social democracy? ›

1. : a political movement advocating a gradual and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by democratic means. : a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.

What is meaning of democracy in social? ›

The word democracy comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning people, and "kratos" meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as "power of the people": a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.

What is the opposite of liberal? ›

Conservatives tend to reject behavior that does not conform to some social norm. Modern conservative parties often define themselves by their opposition to liberal or labor parties. The United States usage of the term "conservative" is unique to that country.

What do liberals believe about the economy? ›

Economic liberals commonly adhere to a political and economic philosophy that advocates a restrained fiscal policy and a balanced budget through measures such as low taxes, reduced government spending, and minimized government debt.

What is the meaning of liberal in history? ›

Liberalism, the belief in freedom, equality, democracy and human rights, is historically associated with thinkers such as John Locke and Montesquieu, and with constitutionally limiting the power of the monarch, affirming parliamentary supremacy, passing the Bill of Rights and establishing the principle of "consent of ...

How do socialists view the state? ›

Socialism is a political ideology that features a number of core values - the view that equality of outcome is more important than individual liberty, the belief in the need for an extensive welfare state, the belief in state ownership of the means of production, the strong emphasis on collective working class ...

Do socialists agree on the economy? ›

Socialists tend to have conflicting views over how the economy should operate. As time has progressed, socialists have strayed away from revolutionary socialists' advocacy for a communist economy towards one that embraces capitalism which clearly puts them into conflict with each other.

Is socialism left wing or right? ›

While communism and socialism are usually regarded internationally as being on the left, conservatism and reactionism are generally regarded as being on the right.

What is the difference between communism and socialism? ›

One key difference between socialism and communism is the way in which each of these economic philosophies might be realized in a society. Communism would result from a violent overthrow of the status quo, while socialism would result from a gradual internal change.

Which country belongs to democratic socialist? ›

Marxist–Leninist states
People's Republic of China1 October 194973 years, 55 days
Republic of Cuba24 February 197646 years, 274 days
Lao People's Democratic Republic2 December 197546 years, 358 days
Socialist Republic of Vietnam2 September 194577 years, 84 days

What does the Liberal stand for? ›

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality and equality before the law. Liberals espouse various views depending on their understanding of these principles.

What countries are liberal socialist? ›

  • 1 Argentina.
  • 2 Belgium.
  • 3 Britain. 3.1 John Stuart Mill. 3.2 Ethical socialism.
  • 4 France. 4.1 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
  • 5 Germany.
  • 6 Hungary.
  • 7 Italy.
  • 8 See also.

What is the main goal in socialism? ›

A primary goal of socialism is social equality and a distribution of wealth based on one's contribution to society, and an economic arrangement that would serve the interests of society as a whole.

What does socialism mean in simple terms? ›

Socialism is an economic and political system where the workers or the government own the buildings and tools that make goods and services like farms and factories. This can be achieved through decentralized and direct worker-ownership, or through centralized state-ownership of the means of production.

Is China socialist or democratic? ›

All political opposition is illegal. Currently there are eight political parties in China other than the CCP that are legal, but all have to accept CCP primacy to exist. The CCP says that China is a "socialist democracy", in which the CCP is the central authority and acts in the interest of the people.

What are some examples of socialism? ›

Examples of socialism include public infrastructure, social security, public transportation, and fire protection services among others. The socialist ideology is widely visible in the US, even if we don't think about it every day, and even if we tend to think of the nation as being a bastion of capitalism.

What is the difference between democratic socialism and social democracy? ›

While retaining socialism as a long-term goal, social democracy is distinguished from some modern forms of democratic socialism for seeking to humanize capitalism and create the conditions for it to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian, and solidaristic outcomes.

Is a socialist society good? ›

Pros of socialism

A welfare state which provides a minimum basic income for those who are unemployed, sick or unable to work maintains a basic living standard for the poorest in society and helps to reduce relative poverty. Free health care.


1. Western liberal democracy would be wrong for China
(Intelligence Squared)
2. Liberalism - Freedom | Class 11 Political Science
(Magnet Brains)
3. John Mearsheimer | The liberal international order
(Centre for Independent Studies)
4. Why Communism Failed and Liberal Democracy Prospered: The Human Prosperity Project
5. Beyond Market Dystopia: Socialist Register 2020
6. Dr. James Lindsay & Helen Pluckrose | 'Cynical Theories'
(John Anderson)
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