Once upon a time Freddie Mercury sang that, above all else, he wanted to break free. Many of us empathize. Freedom and liberty are such appealing principles that vastly different governments claim to embody them and partisans accuse rivals of imperiling them.
For many centuries the conventional wisdom held that liberals were the paradigmatic champions of liberty. From Mary Wollstonecraft and J. S. Mill to John Rawls, all of liberalism’s major philosophers made liberty central to their moral outlook. The United States presents itself as the leader of the “free” world, opposed to tyranny and autocracy. In the blunt words of the late philosopher Maurice Cranston, “By definition a liberal is a man who believes in liberty.”
But the ubiquity of this association has obscured alternative understandings of liberty. One of the most important springs from the republican tradition, which had a profound influence across antiquity and, directly or indirectly, shaped the thinking of figures as diverse as Hugo Grotius and Karl Marx. Yet by the twentieth century it was virtually a forgotten tradition, recovered only in the 1990s through the pioneering work of philosophers Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner.
The stellar new collection Rethinking Liberty Before Liberalism, edited by Hannah Dawson and Annelien de Dijn, is a celebration of the now-excavated school of thought — drawing particular inspiration from Skinner, author of the 1998 book Liberty Before Liberalism — that surveys recent scholarship and demonstrates republicanism’s enduring power. Democratic socialists looking for inspiration about how to think about freedom beyond liberalism will doubtless find much value in the collection.
Rediscovering Old Concepts of Liberty
In his seminal essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between what he called “negative” and “positive” liberty. Negative liberty referred to the freedom to do as one wished without interference from others. He identified negative liberty with the classical liberal tradition. Positive liberty was a more expansive commitment to self-mastery or self-determination. Proponents didn’t just ask whether someone could act unimpeded, but what conditions were necessary for one to be fully free. For instance, an addict permitted to indulge their addiction might enjoy negative liberty, but also lack positive liberty since their actions are largely determined by a crushing compulsion.
While Berlin stopped short of endorsing one concept of liberty over the other, he thought negative liberty was less prone to misuse than its positive counterpart. Utopian attempts to establish positive freedom had often failed at best and descended into tyranny at worst.
Berlin’s typology, for all its generalizations, was profoundly influential in the liberal academy — as was his conviction that the safety of negative liberty was to be preferred to the risks of positive liberty. That dominance received something of a challenge beginning in the 1990s with Pettit and Skinner’s rediscovery of republican liberty. Releasing seminal books within a year of each other — 1997’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government and 1998’s Liberty Before Liberalism — Pettit and Skinner both argued that the intellectual hegemony of liberalism had buried this once wildly popular tradition.
At the heart of republicanism is the conviction that to be free is to be unbounded by the arbitrary will or domination of another. This is distinct from the “noninterference” of negative freedom or even the self-determination of positive liberty. An illustrative example, discussed at length in Rethinking Liberty Before Liberalism, is the eighteenth-century life of Olaudah Equiano, who was sold into slavery as a child to an English navel lieutenant.
By Equiano’s own account, he was treated kindly by his master, who educated him and left him largely to do as he pleased. If benevolence was the guarantor of freedom, Equiano had all the liberty in the world. But one day, Equiano was shocked to learn the lieutenant had traded him to a cruel ship’s captain who intended to take him to the Caribbean. Equiano realized that, however much negative liberty he’d enjoyed for decades, he’d never been truly free because his life was subject to the arbitrary will of another.
As many of the collection’s contributors stress, early modern thinkers like Grotius recognized the importance of nondomination and located it at the heart of their demands for liberty. Reactionary opponents insisted that the ncient régimes of Europe left most citizens free to do as they desired so long as they submitted to the divinely ordained authority of the aristocracy. Republicans fired back that this was a counterfeit form of liberty, since the ruling classes could choose to withdraw it at any time. To be fully free, then, meant to get out from under the caprices of powerful state officials and instead put state power in the hands of the governed.
This was a revolutionary idea for the time, and Dawson and De Dijn rightly insist that it is impossible to understand if one regards the early modern demands for liberty in purely “negative” terms.
Extending Republican Principles
The recovery of republican liberty, as the collection’s many essayists demonstrate, is of more than just historical importance. René Koekkoek’s discussion of the use of republicanism in the abolitionist cause, and the framing of slavery as an extreme form of domination, provides a moral vocabulary that could be useful for ongoing struggles for racial justice. On the other end of the spectrum, Matthijs Lok’s essay about European reactionaries’ invocation of republicanism reveals not only the plasticity of the tradition — American slaveholders like John Calhoun also used republican language — but also how the political right frequently appropriates progressive concepts for their own ends. Lok shows that the reactionaries responded to the collapsing support for absolutism by reworking republican anxieties about despotic majorities and the expropriating working classes to blunt the appeal of revolutionary rhetoric.
Two especially stimulating essays in Rethinking Liberty are Sandrine Bergès’s chapter about the republican influence on early feminism and Bruno Leipold’s deep dive into Marx’s republican sympathies. Berges shows that feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, implicitly or explicitly, relied on republican concepts of freedom when critiquing patriarchal domination. At its core, early feminism objected to the subjection of women to male domination. A wife who was adored and indulged by her eighteenth-century husband was still legally regarded as his ward or even property and could have her privileges withdrawn at any time. It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was barred in all fifty US states; before that, a husband was contractually entitled to demand sex whenever he wished.
Leipold’s essay on Marx makes clear how deep the social theorist’s debt to the republican tradition ran. This included his influential critique of “wage slavery”: while workers in a capitalist society are formally free under the law, they are compelled by economic necessity to sell their labor to capital for less than its value. On top of that, when we enter the workplace we are immediately subject to the domination of bosses and owners, who can unilaterally regulate everything from when we eat to when we go to the bathroom to when we’re actually on and off the clock. Marx also critiqued “an even more general form of domination: the subordination of all of society to the imperatives of the market.” While Leipold does not discuss this last point at great length, it is key to understanding the republican basis of Marx’s political theory. As Tony Smith notes in Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism, many commentators have been puzzled by Marx’s description of capital as a “subject” rather than simply a process. But Marx wanted to emphasize how the compulsions imposed by capitalist dynamics mirrored the compulsions imposed by more familiar kinds of individual human domination. Much as royals controlled their subjects, so too do market imperatives (for instance, the mandate to provide employers a profitable skill or starve) dominate the lives of billions around the globe.
For Marx, the “realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.” In a very republican vein, Marx went on to hypothesize about a freer society consisting of
socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.
Marx famously did not provide many details about what a society of “associated producers” would look like. But to be an improvement over what came before, it would have to liberate us from workplace tyranny and the domineering necessity of the free market.
As Dawson and De Dijn acknowledge, the intellectual well of the republican tradition has barely been tapped. There is plenty that needs to be done just to recover its rich history.
But their collection makes a compelling case for its practical and moral utility in thinking about freedom. Republicanism directs us to the invariably social character of freedom, since it is often in relation to one another that systems of domination calcify or calls for emancipation resound.
Understood as such, we can see why the narrow consumer freedoms offered by neoliberal society are so inadequate. We don’t just want to make choices about what flavor of Gatorade to buy. We want the freedom to create a freer society.