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.
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:
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.
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.
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.