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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The desire to secure to the unprivileged rights held
to be essential or to constitute freedom has been a
strong motive behind reforms that have greatly in-
creased the power of the state. This power has in-
creased at the expense of the privileged, in the obvious
sense that it has deprived them of powers they used
to have. But it is not obvious that this decrease in their
power has also diminished their freedom, not at least
if freedom is understood as the liberal understands it.
When the right to vote at free elections is confined
to the well-to-do, each vote carries greater weight than
when the right is extended to all. The rich man's polit-
ical influence is then diminished, but his right to vote
is as secure as ever. So, too, when only the well-to-do
can publish their opinions or form associations to put
pressure on governments, their political influence is
greater than it is when the poor can do so as well;
but their rights to publish and to associate for political
purposes are not curtailed when democracy comes.

There are even some respects in which greater
equality enlarges the rights of the well-to-do by de-
stroying prejudices that prevent them doing what they
are legally entitled to do, as, for example, by giving
them a wider choice of marriage partners or of occu-
pations. It can be said, therefore, that the reforms,
which have been one important cause among others
of the great increase in the power of the state, have
enlarged in some respects the freedom of all classes,
though they have done more for the poor than for the

Yet the rich have been deprived of powers important
to them, and the deprivation has seemed to them a
loss of freedom. Whether the loss, in their eyes, is made


up for by the benefits it brings to themselves (and
others) depends on their tastes and principles. And
these tastes and principles are affected by the reforms.
It may be that their opportunities in a reformed society
seem to them better worth having than the powers
that the wealthy had before the reforms were made.
Whether or not they seem so must depend largely on
how the reforms are made. The more peacefully they
are made, the more quickly the “dispossessed” are
reconciled to them.

To the liberal, of course, it goes without saying that
reforms aimed at ensuring that all men, regardless of
wealth and social status, can exercise effectively the
rights that constitute freedom, do more for the unpriv-
ileged than the privileged; for, in his eyes, the advan-
tages of the privileged consist above all in their being
better able to exercise these rights. They, too, before
the reforms are made, may be less free (and even much
less free) than they might be, but they are considerably
more free than the unprivileged.

But the privileged, and even the unprivileged, do
not always look at society and social change through
liberal eyes. The privileged are often more attached
to rights threatened by the reformers, especially rights
of property, than to the liberties that the reforms are
meant to enlarge. They may be willing to abandon
some of these liberties—as, for example, the right to
vote at free elections, or freedom of speech or associa-
tion—rather than accept reforms that curtail their
rights of property and their incomes. The unprivileged,
too, are often willing to forego political rights for the
sake of others, making do with considerably less free-
dom than the liberal claims for all men.

No doubt, the rights precious to the liberal would
matter much less than they do, if nobody but the
intellectual cared about them. Their attractive power
depends on their usefulness to large or powerful social
groups. If we consider them in the wide perspective
attempted here, we can see how they arise in a certain
kind of society, and we can say that they are typical
of it. Yet they are not equally attractive to all groups
in that society; and each group is willing to sacrifice
some to preserve or acquire others, or to get other
advantages. Every large group in a society of that kind
is apt to be both liberal and dangerous to liberty.

The more these groups, to whom some of the essen-
tial rights or liberties are peculiarly attractive, organize
effectively to define and push their claims, the more
each of them has to take notice of the claims of the
others. The groups learn to understand and respect
each other's aspirations. Indeed, this is how, in some
Western countries, there has come to be wide agree-
ment about what rights are “essential liberties,” though
in practice every one of them means more to some
groups than to others. Most political leaders, most
acknowledged spokesmen for important groups, rec-
ognize these rights; and the recognition makes each
group readier to make concessions to the others,
whenever the concessions are justified on the ground
that they extend these rights. But this respect for the
claims of others, this readiness to make concessions,
is always limited, so that there is always a good deal
of resistance to reforms that enlarge freedom. Even
the society that takes pride in being liberal is to some
extent illiberal. Most groups inside it are sometimes
willing to sacrifice their own freedom to other advan-
tages or to resist reforms enlarging the freedom of
others. They are willing to do so though they pretend
not to be; they deny, not freedom, but that the advan-
tages they seek are gained at the cost of it or that the
reforms they resist enlarge it for others. In liberal
societies, when freedom is sacrificed, it is so often in
the name of freedom.

Reforms aimed at extending freedom have had two
effects often regarded as dangerous to freedom: the
increased power of the state and more intense compe-
tition. These reforms have not been the sole causes of
these effects but they have been among the most im-
portant. Some writers concerned for liberty, for exam-
ple, R. H. Tawney in both The Acquisitive Society and
Equality, have criticized this competitiveness as a
source of anxiety and self-centeredness, and also as
deflecting people from occupations that might suit
them better to others carrying greater rewards in terms
of wealth, power, or status.

Anxiety, self-centeredness, and doing less suitable
work are not in themselves diminutions of freedom;
not at least if freedom consists in having the rights,
social and political, that we have been discussing. For
the competitiveness that produces these things itself
arises because these rights are widely exercised. But,
as we saw earlier, these rights are often justified by
appeals to such notions as “self-realization,” “self-
improvement,” and “moral autonomy”—and are so not
only by self-styled liberals but by socialists and anar-
chists as well. The gist of these notions, or the parts of
them more easily understood, we tried to formulate
in three liberal principles, of which the first asserts that
the individual should be so educated and placed so-
cially that he can form for himself ambitions and ideals
whose pursuit is satisfying to him. Now, these effects
of “excessive” competition, though they may not pre-
vent people from exercising “essential” rights or liber-
ties, may yet impede the realization of a principle used
to justify the rights. Thus the liberal, even though his
concern is for freedom, must take account of this attack
on the undesirable consequences of excessive competi-
tion; he cannot ignore it as, from his point of view,


irrelevant on the ground that it has nothing to do with
freedom.He must consider it, and if he finds it justified,
must allow that his essential rights, though necessary,
are not sufficient for the achievement of freedom.

The rise of the state has brought with it inequalities
of power greater than any known before, and this rise
has been to a considerable extent an effect of reforms
aimed at extending freedom. So we have here what
looks like a paradox: the more we ensure that all men
are equal (that they all enjoy the “essential” rights),
the greater the inequalities among them. We may
resolve the paradox by pointing out that the respects
in which they are equal are different from the respects
in which they are not. They are equal in the sense
that they all have certain rights, and they are unequal
because some of them have much more power than
others; and the inequalities of power are needed to
ensure that everyone does in fact enjoy the rights. But
this resolution of the paradox, though neat in the ab-
stract, does not carry conviction. Great inequalities of
power may be needed to ensure that everyone enjoys
essential rights; but we cannot assume that wherever
these rights are prized and sought, the inequalities that
arise with the seeking do in fact secure the rights to
everyone; that where social conditions produce the
demand, they ensure the supply. “Seek and ye shall
find” is not a divine promise made to us in this sphere.
Nor is it true that mankind never set themselves a
problem they cannot solve.

Tocqueville said that, as equality and the passion for
it grow, there grows with them the power of the state.
About this assertion there is nothing paradoxical, for
it puts the state to one side over against private citi-
zens. Public authority is exercised, of course, by indi-
viduals who are more powerful than the persons subject
to their authority, but their power belongs to them
by virtue of their office. Tocqueville did not mean,
literally, that where the state is strong, there is in
general less inequality; he meant rather that, where
it is strong, there is less inequality among private
citizens. But he was mistaken, even if this was his
meaning. There is little evidence, even in the West,
that inequality among private citizens has diminished
with the growth of state power; the evidence rather
is that it has changed in character, that new kinds of
inequality have replaced the old. Yet it was natural
enough in Tocqueville's day that men should be struck
more by the decay of old forms of inequality than by
the rise of new ones, for it was the old forms that the
reformers wanted to get rid of as obstacles to progress,
whereas the new forms were, at least to some extent,
effects of their reforms.

In the West in the last two centuries, and increas-
ingly outside the West as Western influences have
spread through the world, there have arisen two differ-
ent attitudes to the modern state. Ever greater demands
have been made on it in the name of freedom, and
its growing activities and powers have been attacked,
above all in the liberal democracies, as threats to free-
dom. These two apparently contradictory attitudes are
often to be found in the same persons. No doubt, to
take up one in some contexts and the other in others
is not to contradict oneself, for in some spheres state
intervention may enlarge freedom while in others it
curtails it. Nevertheless, there is in practice a good
deal of confusion of thought, and even self-
contradiction, both among people who take up these
attitudes and among those who discuss them.

Suspicion of the powerful and centralized state has
been strong in the West among all classes ever since
that state emerged. Though the wealthy have looked
upon it as the defender of institutions on which their
wealth and its attendant privileges depend, they have
also seen it as a threat; and the poor, though they have
looked to it for great benefits, have also denounced
it as the instrument or ally of the privileged and
wealthy. These suspicions and hopes have all, to some
extent, been well founded. But to the liberal there are
three questions about the state in relation to freedom
that are supremely important: To what extent does
securing the essential freedoms to everyone require the
control by public authority of what men do? To what
extent must this control, to be effective, be centralized
over large areas and populations? How can it be con-
trived that the great inequalities of power inseparable
from a centralized and many-sided control of the activ-
ities of vast numbers of people do not curtail the
freedoms the control is meant to secure? Yet these
questions, important though they are to everyone who
cares about freedom, are rarely put, and there have
been few attempts to answer them.

In the early days of socialism, most socialists, re-
formers as well as revolutionaries, disliked vast accumu-
lations of power exercised over large communities.
Before there were socialists, or before the word social-
came into use, there had been philosophers who
advocated common ownership of land and other re-
sources, public control of production and distribution,
and authoritarian government on a large scale. But the
socialists of the early industrial era were most of them
liberals in the broad sense of the word; for, though
they did not call themselves by that name, and some-
times despised the persons who did, they wanted
everyone to have what, in the eyes of the liberal, are
the essential liberties. Not all of them wanted this, and
some of them wanted it much less than others did; and
yet even the least liberal of them, the disciples of
Saint-Simon, though they wanted hierarchy and cen-


tralized control of credit and ridiculed the idea that
authority must be acquired by popular election, looked
forward to the eventual disappearance of organized
force to maintain social discipline.

Many of the early socialists ignored the state or paid
little attention to it. They imagined small self-
governing communities whose members would be well
off materially, would be able to do work attractive to
them, could marry whom they pleased, could cultivate
their minds and educate and indulge their tastes. In
their communities the three liberal principles that we
spoke of earlier would be realized. And though these
early socialists were not concerned, as the liberals were,
to define the rights of the individual, this was because
the communities they imagined were so small that their
members did not need carefully defined legal rights
to secure their freedom. For example, Charles Fourier,
whose ideal community, the phalanx, was to number
some 1600 souls, felt no need to discuss, in the manner
of Benjamin Constant, the judicial and political proce-
dures required to secure his essential rights to everyone
in a country the size of France. There are, to be sure,
some important differences between the conceptions
of freedom of Fourier and Constant; and yet the two
men were both, in the broad sense, liberals.

The indifference to the state of many of the early
socialists meant that they took little notice of two
questions of great concern to liberals: What legal rights
must the citizen have, if he is to be free, and how can
the rulers of large communities be made responsible
to their subjects? But from this we must not conclude
that they cared little for freedom or for the principle
that authority should be exercised either by all who
are subject to it or else by persons responsible to them.
And yet, where indifference to the state turned to
hostility, it often brought with it contempt for the legal
rights that meant so much to the liberal. The socialist
who looks upon the state as an “organ of class rule”
or an “instrument of class oppression” and denies that
giving the vote to everyone can change its essential
character must argue that the rights and procedures,
supposed to secure freedom within the state and to
make governments responsible to the governed, are

Socialist and anarchist hostility to the state feeds on
two beliefs that are different from one another though
often confused: that the state is an instrument for the
oppression of some classes by others, and that any vast
and highly centralized structure of authority is incom-
patible with individual freedom and genuine democ-
racy. Though these beliefs differ and have different
implications, there is one conclusion to be drawn from
both of them: that the state, as we now have it, must
be abolished, if there is to be either freedom or author
ity exercised by the people or their true repre-

Not all socialists have been anarchists, or close to
being so; many have believed that in developed com-
mercial and industrial societies, the vast and cen-
tralized structure of authority that we call the state
is indispensable. It can be oppressive, and can be used
by some groups to exploit others; but it can also be
used to enlarge and extend freedom. It can be either
oppressive or liberating, and the problem is to en-
sure, as far as possible, that it is the second and not
the first.

Socialists have often, in practice, alternated between
denouncing the state as oppressive and calling upon
it to enlarge freedom. Suspicion of the state and faith
in it have been, and still are, socialist, just as they have
been and still are liberal. And this is only to be ex-
pected, for up to some fifty years ago most social-
ists—with the partial exception of the disciples of
Saint-Simon and a few other sects—believed in free-
dom, as the liberal conceives of it. They condemned
established institutions, social and political, largely on
the ground that they denied freedom to the individual,
especially if he belonged to the poorer classes. They
accepted, as fervently as anyone, what we have called
the three liberal principles, or ideas equivalent to them;
and if they were more concerned than liberals were
with social as distinct from political rights, this was
because their suspicion of the bourgeois state went
deeper and they were keener to establish small self-
governing communities or associations of producers.

Before the Bolshevik revolution, Marxists were no
less concerned than were other socialists for the essen-
tial liberties of the individual, though, like the an-
archists, they were also contemptuous of “bourgeois
liberalism.” Since that revolution, their devotion to
freedom (except for those among them who became
Social Democrats in opposition to Moscow), has
dwindled rapidly. They do not reject the liberal prin-
ciples, nor do they say that it matters little whether
the individual has the rights and opportunities that
both liberals and socialists claimed for him long before
there were Marxists in power anywhere. On the con-
trary, they boast that they are doing more than anyone
to liberate mankind. In the countries they dominate
they have abolished or have failed to establish political
freedom; but they either deny that this is so, or else
justify their actions by saying that “counter-
revolutionaries” or “enemies of the people” would
abuse this freedom to prevent their carrying out re-
forms needed to establish the social conditions of free-
dom for everyone. They are, so they say (or, rather,
suggest, for in this matter they are prone to indirection
of speech), doing without some freedoms for the time


being in order that freedom should be achieved more
fully in the end.

While as yet there were none of them in control
of society anywhere, Marxists could launch on
“bourgeois liberalism” a kind of attack to which they
were themselves still immune. Challenged to explain
what institutions they would put in the place of the
ones they denounced as bourgeois shams, they could
say that this was a problem to be solved after the
revolution. But now that they control two of the largest
countries in the world and several smaller ones, they
are much more open to criticism. Or at least they
would be, if they did not silence it where they are
in control, and turn a deaf ear to it where they are

They admit that the countries they rule are not
liberal democracies, but they claim that they are
democracies nonetheless because those who govern are
supported by the great majority of the people, the
manual working classes. They even claim that they are
responsible to the workers, having the right to govern
only because they enjoy their confidence. It is difficult
to believe that they take this last claim seriously. For,
if they did, they would ensure that the classes they
say they speak for could repudiate them, if they so
wished. Leaders who contrive that their “followers”
cannot get rid of them or express lack of confidence
in them cannot be supposed to be sincere when they
claim to speak for them. And yet, sincere or not, they
still pay a kind of lip service, loud and ambiguous, to
the political liberties they in practice repudiate. They
deny that the elections they hold are not free, and yet
admit that they do not allow “enemies of the people”
to put up candidates; they claim that the people, or
at least the workers, are free to associate to promote
their interests and express their aspirations, and yet
boast of silencing their “enemies.” They divide society
into “the people” and “the enemies of the people,”
and deny that they deprive the people of essential
liberties, while allowing that social conditions surviving
from the past to some extent diminish them; and they
say that the enemies of the people are deprived of
freedom only because they would use it to impede the
great work of liberation.

The denial and the assertion are both sophistical;
for it is the rulers (or the ruling party) who decide
who the “enemies of the people” are. These “enemies”
are those who oppose them in their work of “libera-
tion,” and so the “people” are those who do not oppose
them. In other words, there is freedom to agree with
them, or at least not to disagree, about matters which
they choose to regard as important.

Today, almost everywhere, political leaders claim to
be concerned for freedom, for the “essential” liberties
of the individual understood broadly in the sense we
have tried to define. Nobody rejects freedom in this
sense, just as scarcely anybody rejects democracy in
the sense of government (or administration, where the
word government is avoided) by the people or by
persons responsible to them. The enemies of liberalism
do not say that freedom is willing submission to benef-
icent authority, any more than they say that democ-
racy is government for the people rather than by the
people. They are not idolators of the state. On the
contrary, they claim to be more concerned than the
liberal that the individual should be free, and that
decisions affecting the people should be taken either
by them or by agents answerable to them. They outbid
liberalism; they claim to offer—even though only in
the fullness of time—a larger freedom and a more
genuine democracy. They deny that the rights and
procedures evolved in the West really do secure to
everyone the essential liberties. The Western liberal,
as they see him, either deludes himself into believing
what is false, or else pretends to believe it. The institu-
tions sacred to him are parts of a social order in which
only a minority can have much freedom or influence
on government.

The liberal who is really concerned for freedom has
good reason to regret that so many of the attacks on
the democracies of the West should come from where
they do. For the attackers are mostly Communists or
sympathizers with Communism, and their attacks,
judged at the intellectual level, are weak. When the
attackers live in Communist countries, their attacks are
too often abusive, ignorant, or crude; they are presum-
ably for domestic consumption and not meant to be
taken seriously abroad. When the attackers are Com-
munists or sympathizers living in the West, the attacks
are better informed and intellectually more formidable.
If the vitality of a theory is to be measured by the
quality of the thinking of its adherents, Marxism is
today much more alive in the West than in other parts
of the world. But even in the West, its quality is not
high. (We speak of the thinking of avowed Marxists
and not of theories deeply influenced by Marx or assess-
ments of his doctrines by admirers.) The Western
Marxist too often wastes his ingenuity in defending
what is done in the name of Marx outside the West.
Not that what he defends is altogether indefensible,
but much of it is difficult to reconcile with Marxism,
if Marxism is taken to be what Marx himself taught
together with accretions compatible with his teachings.
The Western Marxist is too respectful of crude versions
of Marxism produced outside the West, or too reluctant
to reject them openly, to be able to examine the doc-
trines he holds critically and to refashion them, so as
to make them more clear and more relevant. Though


Marxists speak of Marxism as of a theory that is always
developing, assimilating the teachings of experience,
of history, of the social studies, the claims they make
for it are not true. Admittedly, it has changed greatly,
and is no longer what it was when it left the hands
of Marx; but it has changed above all to meet the needs
of political leaders. Intellectually, it is poorer than it
was, and nowhere more so than in the countries where
it is the ideology of a ruling party. Intellectually, the
social and political creed which is still the great rival
of Western liberalism is a blunt instrument.

“Marxist” parties are, of course, very powerful in
the countries they rule, and have considerable power
in other countries. Politically, they are formidable.
Their arguments in many parts of the world have been
as attractive, or more attractive, to the people they
were addressed to as those of their liberal opponents.
At the business of ideological warfare they are as adept
as their rivals, but this kind of warfare is not rational
argument. On the ideological front, liberal democracy
still has opponents who stretch its resources to the full;
on the intellectual front it has not.

This is to be regretted. For in the Western countries
there is dissatisfaction in plenty, and frustration also.
There is a widespread feeling that liberal democracy
is falling too far short of its own ideals. There is no
lack of criticism, and there are opportunities as large
as ever there were for giving vent to disaffection. Yet
the criticism is often blind and unrealistic. Many of
the faults pointed to are there, but there is almost no
enquiry into how they arose and how they can be
removed. The two ideals that everyone subscribes to,
freedom and democracy, are not rigorously analyzed,
and there is little attempt to discover how they could
be more fully achieved in vast industrial societies.
There is plentiful discussion of legal rights and proce-
dures by lawyers and students of law, and there are
many accounts of how institutions and systems of insti-
tutions function.

These accounts do more than just describe how
people behave; they also examine the rules that govern
their behavior, suggesting improvements. There is a
great deal of theorizing that is prescriptive as well as
explanatory. But the rules and practices examined and
assessed relate mostly to particular institutions; as, for
example, rules of procedure in legislative assemblies,
rules of evidence in courts of law, or electoral rules.
It is at this level that normative theory is precise,
subtle, and realistic. When it goes beyond this, when
it seeks to define the rights and opportunities that
everyone should have or what democracy essentially
is, and to explain what rules and practices, what insti-
tutions, are needed to realize them, it soon becomes
looser, cruder, and less clearly related to the real world.

The need, at the level of political theory or philoso-
phy, as distinct from politics and propaganda, is not
really to defend liberal democracy against the attacks
of people who do not believe in it, for their attacks
were never more inept than they are now; it is rather
to criticize the Western democracies in the light of
their own ideals.