Socialism and Republican Freedom

Seán Rainford
8 min readApr 3, 2021


Intellectuals, activists, and politicians of the left often ground the moral case for their politics on the principle of equality, and for good reason. But the desire for freedom also has an instinctive appeal to most people. On top of this, the right-wing has become very skilful in monopolising language around freedom for their own gain. Defining freedom, what it is we want to be free from, is crucial to understanding the socialist case for it. What this essay argues is that republican liberty — being free from domination and not just interference — gets to the heart of real freedom and that the left should centre more of its activism on this principle.

The Problem with Equality

Before delving into the need for liberty as our central principle, we should consider why equality isn’t enough on its own. Firstly, the belief that all human beings are made equal is one that should never leave our minds. It’s the bedrock of a good and decent society. And it’s still a radically subversive idea given the huge injustices and inequalities that continue to exist.

But what we mean by equality can be difficult to pin down. It can mean equality of opportunity, equality of outcome, or even just a vague belief in the equal moral worth of everyone. Not only do all of these have vastly different consequences, they each have their own problems: How can you have equal opportunity for all if there isn’t some level of equal outcome? How is equal outcome different from everyone being identical? How can you believe in the equal moral worth of everyone if you’re indifferent to material inequalities that exist?

As a moral principle, equality is non-negotiable. As a practical policy beyond equality before the law, it can have problems. ‘True’ equality, which many on the left hold up as the ultimate goal, is probably impossible. This isn’t an inherently reactionary thing to say; it was pointed out by none other than Karl Marx in 1875 — for two things or two people to be fully equal, they have to be the same. It should be remembered that while inequality can be insidious under capitalism, inequality isn’t unique to capitalism; no social system in history has existed without it. Those on the right understand this and find it very easy to undermine moral arguments for socialism on this basis.

With this in mind, a few years ago a New Statesman article argued that the UK Labour Party should push for positive liberty, as opposed to the negative liberty of the right. This dual concept, taken from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, can be boiled down to the difference between freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from, negative liberty, is based on the absence of interference from an external force. Freedom to, positive liberty, is based on the ability to do as you wish and reach your full potential.

It’s clear that neoliberals and right-wingers are just in favour of negative liberty — the absence of state interference like taxes and regulation. In contrast, positive liberty requires things like economic regulation, redistribution, and free public education so as to give everyone the freedom to achieve their full potential. But while some leftists find this idea attractive, the problem with it is, say its critics (including Berlin himself), that it has massive potential for paternalism — that the state decides what ‘true’ freedom and ‘full potential’ are rather than letting people sort it out for themselves.

Republican Liberty

Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit distinguishes the republican tradition from the now-dominant liberal idea of freedom. For liberals, freedom means the absence of interference; for republicans, freedom means the absence of domination. The difference isn’t just academic; it has immense social and political consequences. A slave can be free under the liberal definition of freedom, provided his master decides not to interfere with him too much. A slave can’t be free under the republican one, as he is still subject to the arbitrary whims of his master.

The relevance this can have for left-wing politics is huge. Rather than seeing every law as an infringement of individual liberty, there are times when it can actually strengthen liberty. A law designed to minimise the arbitrary power of one individual over another increases the freedom of the weaker party. This is why laws that protect consumers from large corporations or that protect spouses and children during marriage breakdowns are justified from a republican view.

In the economic sphere, it’s often taken for granted that a free market means free individuals. Instead of challenging this assumption, leftists resort to other moral principles like equality or social justice to justify these policies. This is why Pettit sometimes presents republicanism as an alternative to neoliberal economics. Social democratic measures like progressive taxation, the welfare state, and anti-trust laws are not a violation of freedom but are necessary for freedom in order to prevent economic domination by the rich and powerful.

Socialists and trade unionists have understood for centuries that liberty cannot be meaningful if all it means is the untrammelled ability of the boss to exploit his workers at will and the ability of the worker to sell their labour for as low a wage as possible. In justifying state intervention for the purposes of improving the condition of the working class, the great English socialist RH Tawney made the point that in certain areas when a state does nothing, it actually does harm:

“It is constantly assumed by privileged classes that, when the state refrains from intervening in any department of economic or social affairs, what remains as a result of its inaction is liberty. In reality, as far as the mass of mankind are concerned, what commonly remains is, not liberty, but tyranny.” (1953)

Implicit in Tawney’s argument here is a republican view of liberty — that not all law is a violation of freedom, that the state has a duty to intervene so as to protect the freedom of ordinary working people. It was his belief that all major advancements for freedom in the 19th & 20th centuries were because of the law and the state, not despite them.

Although socialists should always be wary of looking at the state as the answer to all social problems, it remains the case that — for better or worse — the state is the most powerful set of institutions in which ordinary people can have some level of democratic control. It can have corrupting influences, but no meaningful social and economic transformation can happen without it.

Labour Republicanism and the Workplace

Republican freedom gives moral grounds for social democratic action — using the state to secure rights and protections for the weak and minimise the dominance of the strong — but it can have much more radical implications beyond this. As political theorist Alex Gourevitch points out, Pettit and other ‘neo-republicans’ only go so far in applying republicanism to economics. While they see basic income as necessary for republican liberty, they don’t apply the principle to the very basics of capitalism: the skewed relationship between employer and employee.

It’s here we see a real intersection between democratic socialism and republicanism. The worker will always be at the mercy of the owner’s arbitrary whims as long as the basics of the relationship are maintained. Under capitalism, the worker has no say or control in the decisions that affects their life in the workplace. The worker generates capital and value for the owner but does not control the fruits of their own labour. The power imbalance between employer and employee is clear as day, with the owner often able to hire and fire at will.

The early labour movement understood this. ‘Labour republicans’ in the 19th century United States saw slavery being abolished through the application of republican principles of non-domination. But what was replacing it, wage labour, was still an instrument of domination. This was when the term ‘wage slavery’ entered the vocabulary. Workers were not free while the conditions of their labour were controlled by others. Only when workers democratically controlled their workplaces could they be liberated.

“Something of slavery still remains, something of freedom is still to come.”

Ira Stewart, 1873, son of abolitionists and founder of the eight-hour movement

Pettit and other social democrats will argue that the relationship between the worker and the owner can be improved through progressive regulations. But the lesson of the latter half of the 20th century is that as long as the owners of capital remain in a position of disproportionate economic power, they will always undermine any social democratic advances. Only when social democracy is underpinned by economic democracy, through strong organised labour power, can the relationship be controlled and republican liberty be secured for the worker.

The principle of freedom as non-domination goes much further than many presume. At the base level of capitalism — the employment contract — the imbalance of power between the two parties cannot be ignored. Not only do we need a stronger trade union movement to ameliorate that imbalance, we need fundamental transformation of the relationship. At the very least it demands mandatory collective bargaining and worker representation. Ultimately it demands full democratic control by workers of their workplaces. These are the conditions for republican liberty in the workplace.

Civic Republicanism and the State

As well as giving moral grounds for socialist arguments, republican freedom has distinct advantages over other forms because it arguably comes closest to the type of freedom that’s realistically possible in organised human societies. The idea that a person can act as a fully independent individual completely free of all interference from others is just as unrealistic as full absolute equality discussed earlier. While absolute equality ignores the reality of human individuality, the liberal view of freedom ignores the reality that human beings are social animals in need of cooperation, solidarity, and dependence on others.

Republicanism’s advantage is that it is at once more radical than liberalism in objecting to all forms of domination and more realistic in offering a tangible form of social freedom. For republicans, the ideal of the Rule of Law and not the rule of men is one that shouldn’t be scoffed at. Minimising arbitrary power with good laws and checks and balances shouldn’t be seen as just a liberal bourgeois priority — it’s central to minimising social domination. While we may rightly want to decentralise state power, that power will continue to exist. The task then is to make that power accountable, democratic, and as close to the people as possible.

In this way, republican liberty can act as a check on some impulses that led socialists in the twentieth century astray. The problem with Soviet communism was at least partly because it didn’t appreciate the importance of things like the separation of powers, free elections, and the rule of law. The state ended up becoming the most tyrannical form of domination in people’s lives when Marxism and communism were originally meant to do away with such things.

Overall, republicanism and democratic socialism are two sides of the same coin. Both seek to undo domination and arbitrary power in all their forms and to make individuals truly free. In the end, socialism is a struggle for freedom for working people from the arbitrary power of those who own capital. In order to secure this freedom, we need to give people a voice in the decisions which affect their lives — in the workplace and in politics.

Liberals and conservatives should not be allowed to control the language of freedom, especially when we know that theirs is only a superficial vision of freedom — the liberty of the rich to exploit the poor, the liberty of the boss to command the worker, the liberty of the strong against the weak. True freedom, freedom from all forms of domination and control, is what socialists can uniquely offer. It is the only type of freedom worth talking about.



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.