[This article appeared in the Winter 1977 issue of The Occasional Review, pp. 55-79.  It is based on a guest lecture the author presented to the student body at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas.]  


The Concept of Freedom in Modern Social Philosophies 

Dwight D. Murphey


            In jurisprudence there has been an endless, and for the most part sterile, discussion of the “true meaning” of the term “law.”  Writers on legal philosophy will often strain after an all-encompassing definition and will arrive at a meaning without placing their definition within the confines of any consciously articulated theoretical system within which the definition will be intellectually appropriate.  The result is often one of two things: Either the definition hangs out in space by itself as an unrelated specimen of man’s hair-splitting artistry, or else the author has in fact related it to one of the comprehensive social philosophies, but without saying so and without acknowledging that the validity of the definition depends upon the merit of the overall philosophy.  He will have smuggled in his social and political predilections without perhaps even knowing that he has done so.  When he goes on to insist that his is the enlightened definition of the term, neither he nor his readers may realize that his definition encapsulates an entire philosophy.

            A striking example of this is modern liberalism’s enthusiastic approval of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s, definition of law as “nothing more or less than a prediction of what the judge will do in fact.”  It is a definition that seems innocuous enough to the uninitiated, to whom almost any definition will seem plausible, but the reason modern liberals warm to it so heartily is that it focuses empirically and relativistically on the process of judge-made law.  Such a focus leads on by easy stages to such a statement as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes’ that “the Constitution is what the judges say it is.”  The concept of law expressed by Holmes is serviceable to legal and constitutional flexibility.  In turn, this flexibility is favored because of its own serviceability to an active state and also because it was a tactical necessity during the decades in which modern liberals sought (with eventual success) to bypass the traditional classical liberal construction of the Constitution.

            Modern liberals frequently revel in the supposed merits of Holmes’ definition for its own sake, as if it had a delightful intrinsic validity that they have been smart enough to see but that the much less brilliant conservative legal thinkers obtusely have not.  My point is, though, that this has the logic turned around.  In itself, Holmes’ definition is pedestrian; it becomes supercharged with significance only when considered in the context of the modern liberals’ larger theoretical and tactical scheme.  It is worth noting that it is that scheme that breathes life into the definition, not the definition that justifies the larger philosophy.

            These observations have been by way of introduction to my discussion in this article of still another major concept—the idea of freedom (or of liberty, which many authors, including myself, treat as synonymous with it).  Just as with “law,” it is possible to define “freedom” in a vacuum, sterilely.  It is also possible to define it through the same reverse logic we have just noted, arriving at a definition that implicitly subsumes a major worldview.  What I would hope to do would be to put the discussion in the right order.  I would like to paint a sufficiently vivid and empathetic picture of each of the major social and political philosophies that their respective concepts of freedom will be seen as a function of each philosophy’s total perception of man and society.  Each philosophy does indeed, surprising as it may seem, have a concept of freedom, just as it does of equality and justice and so on.  The proponents of each are persuaded that their view of the world is sound and beneficial, at least to the people they think count; they are understandably anxious to appropriate to their own use the various emotively favorable terms used by humanity in thinking about society.

            But before I start my review of the philosophies, a few caveats are in order:

            1.  Because of the brevity of the article, my discussion of each philosophy will necessarily be simplified, a mere overview, with all that that entails.

            2.  Precisely because my views are interpretations, they are controversial; there is no pretense that they are admitted by everyone.  So the reader should approach them, as I hope he does all social thought, with care.

            3.  The fact that I will be relating several competing philosophies, each with its own definition of freedom, does not of itself justify a relativistic assessment of the philosophies such as would occur if the reader were to throw up his hands and say “they must all be equally good.”  I hope to be fair to the worldviews discussed, but I would be the last to say that they have equal merit. 

            As the West emerged into modernity, innumerable factors combined to break up the medieval consensus.  An agricultural revolution had long been underway, laying the foundations for the later Industrial Revolution; a landed society had seen the rise of the commercial towns and of the bourgeoisie; the mental insularity of the Middle Ages had been shattered by the discovery of ancient manuscripts, the contact with Islamic civilization, the Crusades, the startling new Copernican worldview and the discovery of America.  We don’t need to adhere to Marxian dialectic to realize that the time was ripe for a new philosophy.

             Its precursor was Bernard Mandeville.  Even so late as the early eighteenth century, the prevailing ethical conception—reflecting an organic, religiously centered society—was that personal “pride” and the pursuit of self-interest were vices.  In The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville stood this outlook on its head by arguing that it is precisely man’s self-interest that is most conducive to human well-being.  His argument was not yet fully classical liberal and he used some mercantilist arguments to support his thesis, as when he remarked that prostitution in London was of benefit because it put money into circulation, but he had nevertheless caught a glimpse of the informing principle of an individualist society.

            A few years later Adam Smith, although abhorring the scandalous overtones of Mandeville’s approach, formulated a systematic exposition of how a market economy, made up of countless individuals interacting voluntarily, can indeed work.  Such an economy, Smith argued, involves neither vice nor chaos, as the mercantilists asserted.  He saw it as enormously productive and spontaneously harmonious.  This realization has been elaborated and refined during the ensuing two centuries by the many thinkers of the classical and neo-classical schools of economics: Ricardo, Senior, Say, the Mills, Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek and Friedman, to name a few.    

            It is a mistake, though, to think of the new outlook primarily in terms of economics, even though the overwhelming portion of the intellectual work was done there.  Its "informing principle” went much further.  I call this principle the “vitalist perspective” since classical liberals have seen man’s potential as inhering in the vast corpus and rich diversity of mankind itself.  Their reliance has been on the vitality of average human beings, whom they have seen as capable of immense productive effort even, or rather especially, in the absence of the directing hand of a Caesar or a central planner.  A society of free individuals is to classical liberals the fulfillment of mankind’s most generous aspirations.  Instead of living out his life in slavery or serfdom or in a position as a hierarchical underling, the average man could make himself an abundant life on a higher plane than ever before, participative, self-reliant and self-fulfilling.

            There is mixed into this an abiding fear of government and a welcoming of individual freedom, but it should also be noted that there are, in addition, a number of centripetal, cementing forces that make up part of the classical liberal ideal.  The goal is “ordered liberty” or “liberty under law.”  The individualistic society, properly understood, requires an ample framework of law and institutions and a pervasive ethic of self-reliance, responsibility and civic virtue.  Since the freedom endorsed is to be shared by all and to last over time, these desiderata require substantially more channeling of the individual’s energies through norms impressed by family, church, school, and peers than is implied by any sort of “do your own thing” notion of freedom.

            I think that by now we are all aware that the classical liberal aspiration has run into serious trouble.  The reasons are legion: Bourgeois society has not thus far been inclined to raise itself culturally and intellectually above the Philistine mediocrity that its critics for thousands of years have seen in it; the modern intellectual subculture has for a century and a half harbored the most profound alienation against commercial civilization and bourgeois values; there has been a consequent drain of intellectual resources away from classical liberalism, with the result that it has been rendered defensive, doctrinaire and non-reformist; and the inclination of the average man, ascendant for the first time in history, to embrace a conception of society that centers on self-reliance and responsibility has been thoroughly problematical.  I am myself a classical liberal and despite all of these things I do not believe that there has been a definitive showing of the ultimate unsuitability of a free society to human nature, but I do believe that there are major factors in the dynamic of modern life that will have to change before men will be ready to embrace classical liberal values and make the most of them.

            If we turn now specifically to the classical liberal conception of freedom, we see that there have been varied formulations by different thinkers, reflecting an assortment of methodologies and metaphysical underpinnings, but that each has kept in mind at least two major desiderata: The need for an appropriate setting, within a network of mutual rights and obligations, for more or less autonomous men; and the necessity of delimiting the power of government.

            In the opening chapters of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and in my book Emergent Man, the formulation is in terms of “reducing coercion as much as possible.”[1]  This entails a detailed analysis of the nature of coercion and leads on to the discussion of a protected private sphere and of the voluntary transaction.  The broad range of social circumstances is then subject to examination to formulate the principles upon which coercion may be reduced and the voluntary accentuated.  The method here is rationalistic, seeking an accommodation of competing interests so that broad alternative avenues of expression will be open.

            It is surprising, then, that a short time later in the same book Hayek shifts his ground to a more historically rooted, organic methodology.  At that point he decries what he sees as the rationalistic model-building of nineteenth century classical liberal thought.  Instead, he finds the meaning of liberty most profoundly in a tradition—the tradition of the Rule of Law which he traces back to the isonomia of the ancient Greeks.  The caprice of the state is limited by a binding rule, applying equally to everyone and set down well in advance, and the acting man is aided by the existence of dependable norms.  The institutions of the Rule of Law are seen to have grown slowly over a long tradition in English and American history.

            A third methodology could aptly be called the aprioristic, or axiomatic, formulation.   Here, classical liberal principles—such as, say, the inviolability of private property or the oft-repeated formula that the sole function of government is to act against force and fraud—are seen as truths derived from “the nature of man qua man” or from natural law.  Thereafter, the task is deductively to determine the application of the axiom in the various circumstances of life.

            The three approaches involve important differences, but they all relate to the overall classical liberal perception of man.  Accordingly, they address problems classical liberals perceive as foremost in society and offer solutions that are consistent with classical liberal values. 

            The term “Burkean conservatism” may be used narrowly to denote specifically the doctrines enunciated by the British statesman Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century.  I will want to use it in a more pervasive sense in this article to refer to an entire complex of values and of institutions that was of enormous importance in the history of Western civilization for over two thousand years.  This complex—involving hierarchy, religion, community, order and tradition—assumed a succession of cultural forms, but in a general sense can be said to have been the predominant worldview in the West from the time of the Roman Republic to the middle of the nineteenth century.  Even in the secular, egalitarian twentieth century, its values are articulated by a number of thinkers and writers of the highest merit.  Because of the great age and sweep of this complex of values, I am sensitive to the superficiality of naming it after a single man, especially one who lived so late as the eighteenth century; but we are justified in applying Burke’s name to it by the fact that his Reflections on the Revolution in France, written at a time when its values were under severe attack, articulated its principles and ideals more comprehensively than they had perhaps ever been stated before.

            I will start my review of it with the Roman Republic, since there is much about the Republic that is instructive about the Burkean paradigm.  During and immediately after its long and repeated wars with Carthage, the Republic was a tightly knit, organic society.  The intense pressures of war brought a need for stern virtue, austerity and a strong commitment on the part of the individual to the community as a whole.  (These qualities are in evidence today in our museums when we see the stern-countenanced busts of the old Romans, which with their frowning demeanor illustrate the gravitas and disciplina of that time.)   Despite the earlier centuries of struggle between the patricians and the plebeians during which the plebeians had succeeded in overcoming their inferior status in Roman life, the Punic Wars called back into play the need for a continuity of leadership.  This was provided by the Senate and the families of the ex-Consuls, who became the new aristocracy, the nobiles.

            The Republic was intellectually, culturally insulated, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, as when Cato the Elder cut short the visit by three Greek philosophers.  There was a sense of tradition which was sufficiently great that the Republic was known as the mos maiorum—“the tradition of our ancestors.”  This traditionalism was, of course, fully compatible with the insularity and the dedication to civic virtue.  All, in turn, were complemented by the Republic’s strong religious center, which added pietas, the “fear of the Roman gods,” to the list of virtues.  The family was also a major institution, with strong parental authority.  The economic base was landed, not commercial, although the economy was that of the rustic farmer rather than of large plantations (these, known as latifundia, came later).

            This tightly-knit, organic community did not last, of course.  It began to disintegrate soon after the wars with Carthage were over.  But it is significant that virtually all later Romans, during the six centuries Rome continued to exist in the West, looked back on the mos maiorum with reverence as the best time in Roman history.

             If now we list the components that went to make up the Republic, we readily see the extent to which, in an underlying sense, they characterize also the Middle Ages:

                                    .  Community

                                    .  Discipline

                                    .  Aristocracy

                                    .  Tradition

                                    .  Religion

                                    .  The family

                                    .  Insularity

                                    .  A landed economic base

            This continuity of institutions and of values is worth remarking even though the Middle Ages wore a distinctly different cultural face and even though the Christianity that was central to the Middle Ages was a very different religion than that worshipped by the Romans of the Republic.  From a distance, the similarities suggest a long-standing continuity in Western civilization.  The religion became Augustinian Christianity, the aristocracy that of the lords and the kings; the economy became that of the manor, with feudalism replacing the rustic Roman farmer and even the later latifundia.  The ethical commitment to austerity and discipline gave way to the ideals of civility and chivalry, but nonetheless remained an ethical consensus.  Tradition and insularity were, if anything, heightened; there was a profound suspicion of the human reason, will and appetite which together could serve as acids to disintegrate the social order.

            To the conservative, this was a society that had its bearings.  It had, above all, not lost sight of the reality of God; and it realized the weakness and fallibility of man and organized itself accordingly.  When the advent of the modern age shifted the emphasis to a secular concern for the things of this world, the conservative saw this not as an enhancement of man’s relationship with reality, but as an obliteration of the most fundamental existential fact.  When there was an onrush of doubt and rationalistic questioning, he perceived it not as a resurgence of man’s intellectual dignity, but as a crumbling of traditional values and as a neurotic assertion of hubris.  When man became preoccupied with material well-being, he saw a decline in spiritual values.

            I think my description thus far, although brief, has been sufficient to permit us an understanding of what the Burkean feels on the subject of freedom.  T. S. Eliot expressed a characteristic assessment of classical liberalism (which, we must remember, views itself as the philosophy of liberty) when he wrote that “by destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their mutual collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”[2]

            The individual is best served not by an autonomous liberty but by life within an organic order which will embody far more than he could ever create by himself.  “The appetites for destruction and violence and ruthless power are no less congenital than the appetite for sexual gratification,” Russell Kirk has written; “so society must obscure and repress and divert the extreme form of such appetites, that men may live at peace with one another.”[3]  This echoes the sentiment Burke expressed when he said that “society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be rejected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.”[4]

            To modern readers other than Burkeans, this will seem far from libertarian.  But in that regard it is worth remembering that the Burkean worldview is not inspired by malevolence; it is based on a certain perception of what is thought to be fundamentally true and of what is best for man.           

            The ideal of egalitarian socialism was well developed as early as the ancient Greeks, where one of Aristophanes’ comedies, for example, had great fun presenting a scheme for shared wealth and wives.[5]  Egalitarian models were formulated prior to the modern era in such books as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Campanella’s The City of the Sun.  These early manifestations suggest that a communal organization of human life is one of the natural models that appeal to the mind; if so, it is likely that the idea will always be with us in one form or another.

            I do not believe, though, that this satisfactorily explains the enormous thrust toward egalitarian ideology that has occurred since the middle of the nineteenth century.  I attribute that far more to a dynamic factor of massive proportions that has made modern Western history unique: the intense alienation of the intellectual from the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals’ resulting alliance with “have-nots” of every description.  I think it is very questionable whether there would have been a significant socialist movement in modern life if this phenomenon had not occurred.  The alienation—together with its causes and consequences—is too large a subject for this article, but I would not want to discuss egalitarian socialism without at least alluding to it.

            The basic perception of social reality that lies at the heart of egalitarian socialism is that many people, amounting to a substantial portion of humanity even in Europe and America, are trapped by their environment and are subject to “exploitation” because of their weakened condition unless they are helped out of their predicament by an outside force.

            The first part of this is that many people are trapped.  They are not thought to bring much effective energy to life; nor are they expected to, since I think it is a fair thing to say that egalitarian socialist thought is not at all anxious to join in any sort of “bourgeois ethic” that would impute a moral imperative toward self-reliance and capability.  And in addition to these factors, the environment is seen as monolithic, defeating them without a really meaningful chance of escape.

            It is easy to see how the various exploitation theories follow in the train of this perception.  Where a classical liberal sees coercion as the central problem in society, the egalitarian socialist sees weakness and exploitation.  The exploitation is explained in several ways, since there is more than one theory.  The accepted theory in the United States today, held by perhaps ninety-nine percent of the people, is what I call the “common sense” or “strength versus weakness” theory, based on a “bargaining power” rationale.  This perceives a worker as in a position of weakness and urgency when he is looking for a job, so that an employer is in a good position to dictate the terms of employment.  In socialist thought, this is backed up with class theory, which postulates that workers cannot better their position by mobility, since all employers are members of the same class and will dictate the same (or at least similar) exploitive terms.

            The “labor theory of value” has also been important in socialist exploitation theory, especially in the writings of Rodbertus and Marx.  The original classical economists had defined value as being the amount of work that had gone into something.  Socialist theory extends this (1) by making the value judgment that all of the return should go to those who did the work, and (2) concludes from this that any return at all to the entrepreneur is for that reason per se exploitive.  This makes capitalism illegitimate by definition.  It is worth noticing that it is not itself based on a strength-versus-weakness rationale or even on class theory; in fact, its advantage over these others is precisely that it seems more analytic and therefore more scientific.

            It is noteworthy that methodologically such a use of the labor theory of value has the logic turned around in just the same way as did the Holmesian definition of law which I discussed at the beginning of this article.  The correct sequence is that socialist values and perceptions justify the labor theory of value, rather than the other way around.  If left by itself, the labor theory of value amounts only to an arbitrary definition and an appended value judgment.  The definition and value judgment make very little sense in the context of a market economy and its ethical system.  They do make sense as a critique of the market if one presupposes the validity of an opposing collectivist model, since in the collectivist economy there is no place assigned to an entrepreneur.  From this point of view, he is superfluous; and if he is superfluous, his remuneration takes the form of an exploitive (i.e., unjustified) extraction.  Logically, the collectivist perspective comes first—with the labor theory of value being merely an elaboration of it.

            Once the egalitarian socialist concepts of “entrapment” and “exploitation” [Note in 2007: Most recently, “victimization”] are understood, it is easy to see that there is a concept of freedom that follows from them.  Individualistic voluntarism for men who are weak and dependent and exploited is seen not only as a pernicious folly, but as in fact a hypocritical rationalization for continued exploitation: it is, as the socialists would think, a hunting license for the strong to take advantage of the defenseless.  What is needed, therefore, is that men be helped out of their dependency and exploitation by a counter-force.

            This liberating force will most often be the socialist state or the revolutionary movement.  The libertarian function of the state was central to Ferdinand Lassalle’s socialism: “The State it is which has the function to accomplish this development of freedom, this development of the human race in the way of freedom.  The duty of the State is to enable the individual to reach a sum of culture, power, and freedom, which for individuals would be absolutely unattainable.  The aim of the State is to bring human nature to positive unfolding and progressive development—in other words, to realize the chief end of man: it is the education and development of the human race in the way of freedom.  The State should be the complement of the individual.  It must be ready to offer a helping hand, wherever and whenever individuals are unable to realize the happiness, freedom, and culture which befit a human being.”[6]

            Herein lies the great emotional and intellectual appeal of egalitarian socialism as both libertarian and compassionate.  (At least this is the appeal in its outward ideological dimensions.  We delude ourselves if we do not realize that it is sincerely and deeply felt and is immensely attractive to those who share it.  But even as we permit ourselves to see it empathetically in this light we ought not to lose sight of the fact that the alienation of the intellectual, the envy of the so-called masses, and the power-drives of those who see in socialism at least unconsciously an opportunity for personal self-assertion are all part of the underlying appeal.)  Most non-socialists don’t really understand socialism because they have not let themselves see the world as the socialist sees it.  Socialism’s opponents perceive it (wisely, I think) as a gigantic increase in coercive power, subject to the type of abuse Lord Acton predicted.  But socialists see it as a gathering of compassionate energy directed at alleviating the central problem in human society.

            Marxist-Leninist doctrine has so clothed itself with theoretical trappings that what I have just said is not totally descriptive of it.  I think that from a distance the comments I have made do apply.  But technically Marxism-Leninism has taken a position on freedom that is not covered by these observations.  It is argued that such concepts as freedom, equality and democracy are no more than the metaphysical expressions of bourgeois class-interest, and that they are to be discarded along with the bourgeoisie during the dictatorship of the proletariat.  When finally the classless society is achieved, all of these values will be attained—but in a true sense that will then reflect the absence of an exploiting class.  This analysis bears the imprint of the historicist dimension of Marxism-Leninism.  It has added appeal—especially to the intellectual—because it substitutes a detailed analysis of history and of social movement for the seemingly more naïve model-building of other socialists whom Marx decried as “utopian.”  Just the same, Marxism-Leninism does contain the basic elements characteristic of all egalitarian socialist thought: theories of entrapment, of exploitation and of a liberating movement. 

            There is a form of socialist thought that does not center on weakness and its alleviation.  National socialism in Germany under Hitler and fascism in Italy under Mussolini combined a profoundly collectivist outlook with a desire for heroic striving.  For them socialism was a vehicle for virile energy, transcending the mundane values of everyday existence.

            It will be a mistake if some readers consider this part of my discussion irrelevant on the ground that “national socialism was, after all, defeated more than thirty years ago.”  It is far from irrelevant, since there is no reason to suppose that the collectivist outlook will always be steeped in the egalitarian perspective.  Collectivism is a vessel that can be filled with a wide variety of contents.  There is much in modern life, indeed, that can lead people to a willingness—or, more accurately, to an eagerness—to use the state as an instrument to achieve a powerful integration.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset pointed out fifty years ago, the state can serve as a “direct action” tool to cut through the niceties of civilized form.[7]  Within a given setting, it can become the vehicle for efficiency and order, and for the expression of the pride and anger of a large number of people.  In this form, the state is thought to become coterminous with the spirit of a people and to give a no-nonsense, dynamic expression to their will.

            I can briefly suggest only a couple of the underlying elements in modern society that lend themselves to such a socialism:

            .  Ortega rightly observed that enormous numbers of modern men are shallow and rootless, amounting really to spoiled children living within an advanced civilization which they neither understand nor appreciate.  As such, they feel few inhibitions that would cause them to respect liberal values.  The “direct action techniques” they employ represent, in effect, a tantrum-like method of getting what they want.  We see this in small ways all around us in daily life, and it is more dramatically visible in the conduct of criminals and terrorists.  When judged by liberal values, the fascist state is seen as a comprehensive application of this mentality.

            .  Anti-bourgeois, anti-liberal sentiment is found in every philosophy except classical liberalism, but during the century and a half that followed the French Revolution it received particularly virulent expression in continental thought.  In a famous book on the subject, Julien Benda expressed alarm over the ferocious nature of much nineteenth and early twentieth century thought in France and Germany.[8]  War and the heroic life were extolled in contrast to the peaceable round of commercial existence.        

            .  With the secularization of modern life, there has been an unfulfilled spiritual need—a point that is spoken to extremely well by Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.  The great social religions have offered many men a transcendent cause with which they could identify and that gave them a sense of being part of something much larger and more significant than themselves.  I think this was well illustrated in the movie Cabaret, where the entire plot revolved around dissipation and decadence, but with a single elevated touch being interjected when the young, blond Nazi stood up in a beer garden and sang a stirring hymn.  I doubt whether national socialism can really be understood without substantial empathy for precisely that sentiment.

            National socialism in Germany involved several additional features, of course.  The ideal of what we might call “a national spiritual corporation of the German people” arose in the nineteenth century as a product of several complementary developments:  first, there had been the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment, a revolt that extolled the virtues of the Middle Ages and created a longing for an heroic age which was perceived as contrasting sharply with modern life.[9]  Then Hegelianism split into its left-wing and right-wing variants, with the former holding to class theory and the latter to national and racial theory.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, Volkish though arose in Germany and through innumerable writings and novels developed the mystic of a Germanic people who were thought to have been molded over many centuries by geography, climate and a common blood.[10]  Although not all Volkish thought was anti-Semitic, it was an in-group philosophy that limited its vision and concern to a single people, so that it was at least a receptive host for the anti-Semitism that became increasingly virulent in the early twentieth century.  Still another element, which was certainly consistent with these others, was the pervasive spirit of nationalism that swept across Europe generally during the century following the French Revolution.  At the same time, the modern nation-state was growing in economic power and military might.

            The German Youth Movement which began in 1896 gave expression to a wide variety of anti-bourgeois viewpoints, so that it isn’t accurate to pinpoint its ideology too narrowly, but in general it expressed the values just mentioned.[11]  When World War I broke out in 1914, German youth marched off to war ecstatically, sharing a common experience with an exhilarated camaraderie and elan.  This turned to intense anger and frustration when Germany was defeated and then blamed for the war (whom the overwhelming number of Germans had considered a righteous defense of their country).  This anger was one of the essential ingredients of Nazism as we knew it.  The anger was poignantly expressed in the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, photographed at the Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg in September 1934.  There is an unforgettable scene in which the flag-bearers lowered their flags to the ground in honor of fallen comrades as the names of the battlefields of World War I were read off.  Then they snapped the flags back up as Hitler shouted defiantly from the speakers’ stand.

            The “national spiritual corporation” had a strongly collectivist aspect, and—despite its “right-wing” label—included much out of socialist thought in general.  There is a scene in the same film in which 55,000 members of the Workers Corps stood in formation before Hitler, each in uniform with a spade over his shoulder, and called out chants to Hitler about planting forests and constructing highways.  Then Hitler told them that thereafter it would be impossible for a German to go into any other line of work without first being “one of you.”  Despite national socialism’s reliance on the “leadership principle” and its complete denigration of democracy, it placed strong ideological emphasis on egalitarianism.  It was the egalitarianism of common membership in a joint enterprise.

            Needless to say, national socialism had a great deal of attraction for those who were caught up by it—although for some the attractiveness evaporated as they were ground down by its relentless opposition to individuality.  It was not intended, of course, to have attraction for those who “didn’t count.”  Hitler praised terror in Mein Kampf and used it extensively against his perceived enemies.  For several centuries, the “threshold of compassion,” so to speak, had been falling in Europe as a reflection of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the lessened hardship of human life, but this had not been a uniform phenomenon; the emotional and intellectual threads that came together in Nazism had held themselves outside the mainstream of that compassion, so that to that extent Nazism consisted of an atavistic throwback to the merciless days when armies would, say, bake their prisoners of war in ovens.  (The same could be said of Stalin and Mao—and indeed must be said if we are not to be guilty of perpetuating the compartmentalization of sensibility that has so disgraced the twentieth century intellectual community.)

            How, then, does all of this relate to the national socialist concept of freedom?  The answer really is obvious in the context of the total worldview I have described: “freedom” is not the illusory freedom of individualistic society, nor the freedom of the weak as they are aided against the strong; it consists of participation in the only existence that is really meaningful, the on-going processes of race and nation, especially when the race itself is the creator of intelligence and culture.  Nazi “freedom” is inseparable from the Nazi outlook in general.  For those who shared its perceptions, there was nothing that struck them as ironic about the statement by Walter Schultze that: 

We proceed here from a notion of freedom that is specifically our own, since we know that freedom must have its limits in the actual existence of the Volk.  Freedom is conceivable only as a bond to something that has universal validity, a law of which the whole nation is the bearer… Ultimately freedom is nothing else but responsible service on behalf of the basic values of our being as a Volk.[12]

            It is an easy matter to state the modern American “liberal” definition of freedom, since twentieth century welfare liberalism holds essentially the same perception of social reality and the same concepts as does egalitarian socialism in general.  What is more complex is to delineate the exact nature of this liberalism.  I have thought that such an explanation is essential for each of the philosophies if the respective concepts of freedom are to be understood in context.

            The difficulty stems from the fact that there is an essential ambiguity in the nature of modern liberalism.  Such prominent liberal spokesmen as Hubert Humphrey and Eric Goldman have asserted their belief that modern liberalism arose out of classical liberal roots, but that it sought a more sensible and flexible adaptation to modern needs and to the complexity of industrial and urban life.  If such men believe this and if we are to credit their sincerity (which I think we must, especially in the case of Goldman, who in my opinion is extremely honest in the way he handles ideas), there is significance in it; it tells us something, I think, about at least some modern liberals, who are perhaps not as far removed from the traditional values of our society as we might have supposed.  But I will plainly indicate my own belief in the insufficiency of their explanation of modern liberalism.  I believe it to be far too easy and shallow an interpretation.)  [Note in 2007: I have expressed elsewhere my later change of opinion about Goldman.  When I read the New Republic in preparation for my book on modern liberalism, I found that he was the author in the mid-1940s of an article that expressed his benign interpretation of modern liberalism and that seemed utterly out of place with the almost thirty years of pro-Soviet writing that preceded and indeed surrounded the piece.  In that context, of which he must have been fully aware, the view that modern liberalism was essentially a reformist reaction to the growth of business corporations was quite ludicrous.  So, regrettably, I now have a different feeling about the credibility of his interpretation.]

            I would not think of beginning my interpretation of modern liberalism with the end of the Civil War, as Goldman did in Rendezvous With Destiny.  To do so is to miss the central fact about American intellectual history, which in turn became the most influential fact in the coalescence of modern liberalism: the rise of intense intellectual alienation against American society at large that began in about 1820.  Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of “the soul of the soldiery of dissent” and described the withdrawal of “the man of tender conscience” from the life of his times.[13] 

            At first, this dissent had no common ideology; but as the century wore on it developed more and more of a consensus.  This was augmented substantially when several thousand American doctoral candidates studied in German universities under the German Historical School in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  This was the same school of thought as was involved in the Methodenstreit with the Austrian school of economics.  It was vigorously anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist, although it is important to note that it was neither Marxist nor revolutionary.[14]   Its professors were known as “the socialists of the chair,” but their socialism was mild compared with that of Marx and Lassalle, so that today we rarely, if ever, find the Historical School represented in the standard anthologies of socialist writing.

            Back in America, the tone adopted by modern liberalism is symbolized well, I think, by the work of Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic magazine and author of The Promise of American Life.  Croly was unrelenting in his attack on the classical liberalism of Jefferson, but otherwise his style was one of careful dissimulation.  He advocated what was in essence a corporate state, with big business to be encouraged to become bigger and then to be married to government planning, but he carefully avoided the socialist label.  This diffidence and gradualism, while yet combined with considerable intellectual alienation and the Left’s overall perception of social reality, has been the defining characteristic of modern liberalism.  Indeed, a reaction against its dissimulation and opportunism was one of the important causes of the rise of the New Left a few years later.

            This is not to say that modern liberalism has not derived a number of its facets from native American roots.  There has always been a significant school of thought in American history that has favored an active state, and the continuation of its thinking would in all likelihood have produced something similar to the New Deal even if the alienation of the intellectual had never occurred and even if there had not been a substantial importation of socialist concepts from Europe.  This, in fact, is what Humphrey and Goldman understand modern liberalism to be.  It is also true that one of the aspects of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian classical liberal faith was a deep belief in democracy, with a broadened participation of the average citizen in the processes of government.  This thrust toward democracy was continued by modern liberalism, while at the same time it also continued the Jacksonian opposition to corruption as a major theme.  The business cycle, the socializing effects of war, the end of the frontier and countless other factors also entered in.  Perhaps most significant was the drain of intellectual resources away from classical liberalism, which ceased to be a major reformist force in American life.  Modern liberalism was known as “progressivism” until the middle of the 1920s; we are told something about the condition of classical liberalism at that time when we realize that modern liberalism was able to assume the name “liberal” without appearing to encroach significantly on anyone else’s domain.

            I began this section by saying that modern liberalism embraces the same basic conceptual framework as does egalitarian socialism.  Modern liberal ideology is functionally a reflection of the alliance of the alienated intellectual with the various “dispossessed” elements in American life.  This alliance (which by an accident of history also included the “solid South”) is what political scientists call the “New Deal coalition.”  It is also the same alliance as occurred in Europe as the basis for egalitarian socialism.  The upshot is that both modern liberalism and egalitarian socialism perceive social reality primarily in terms of entrapment and exploitation; and each considers the state a liberating, benevolent instrument.

            The modern liberal concept of freedom is simply a part of this overall perception of society.  It was illustrated extremely well in Hubert Humphrey’s book The Cause is Mankind when he asked,  “How free is a scientist if he does not have equipment and facilities with which to do research?” and proceeded to advocate a program of federal government assistance to science.[15]  His approach reflected the various aspects of the modern liberal concept of freedom: (1) he permitted himself to see even scientists as unfortunates who are trapped by their circumstances; (2) his use of the term “freedom” had nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of coercion, as a classical liberal would have used the word, since it never entered his mind to inquire whether the scientist who lacked equipment lacked it because of someone else’s coercive intervention; and (3) he was ready, even anxious, to call in the state to liberate the scientist from his entrapment.

            I ought perhaps to add that the modern liberal’s implicit acceptance of egalitarian socialist concepts is particularly crucial at the present juncture in American history.  With the rise of the New Left, the more alienated among the intellectuals broke away into avowedly socialist movements.  From that vantage point they turned vitriolically against modern liberalism.  The modern liberals who stayed behind, who were inferentially the less alienated members of the liberal community, were at a crossroads, so to speak, in terms of their own future direction.  The departure of the alienated core left an opening toward the right, so that there could be a possible movement in the direction of classical liberal values.  But this opening has been blocked by three main factors: the quieting of the New Left itself; the inability of classical liberals, from their defensive and fragmented posture after a century of being on the run, to see and take advantage of the opportunity; and, perhaps most important, the modern liberals’ own acceptance of the socialist conceptual framework, which has had the effect of placing a substantial gulf between the two schools even though the time is ripe for a rapprochement.  Accordingly, an historic opportunity is being lost.            

            The explanations that were offered for the rise of the New Left in the United States in the 1960s have seemed to me, for the most part, to misunderstand its origins.  The usual explanation, which modern liberals frequently voiced, was that the New Left represented an idealism and sensitivity that was responding to real issues but that unfortunately carried its militancy too far.  But this analysis is, it seems to me, both too shallow and too laudatory.

            The important thing to realize is that modern liberalism has at all times harbored deeply within itself—in its intellectual circles and in its literature—the alienation to which I have referred.  The gradualistic, dissimulative style adopted by modern liberalism has not been fundamentally designed to “scratch the itch” embodied in this alienation.  Unless the alienation were to have withered away, which we know it did not, it is understandable that at some time it would break out into the open and take vehement exception to modern liberalism itself, which it has necessarily perceived as insufficient and fundamentally dishonest.  If my analysis of this is correct, it means that the New Left was inherently present within modern liberalism from the beginning.

            Its emergence awaited the proper combination of catalysts and the chance for mass support.  The confrontations that occurred during the civil rights movement had a radicalizing effect and this was followed within a short time by the opposition to the Vietnam War.  With these catalysts opening the door, the New Left resurrected virtually all of the doctrines of nineteenth century socialism and poured them out into American society voluminously for the first time.  (This is why the name “New Left” is actually a misnomer that ought to stimulate the juices of even the least avid of the truth-in-packaging enthusiasts.)  The alienation and the intense anti-bourgeois ideology combined with the essentially hedonistic orientation of American youth to produce an ironic phenomenon: the idealistic and yet shallow sans-culotteism of the hippy counter-culture.

            To a substantial portion of American youth, the resulting lifestyle and ideology had quite a plausible libertarian appeal.  What, indeed, could be more consistent with true freedom than “doing your own thing?”  And yet, it was not a classical liberal individualism that was intended.  It was not ordered liberty within a system of coordinate rights and obligations that was sought.  The liberty in which the counter-culture reveled was overwhelmingly a manifestation of a desire to do whatever was necessary to undercut the norms of bourgeois society.  If the predominant society wore its hair short, the new style was to be long; if the middle class bathed regularly and wore clean clothes, the counter-culture would do just the opposite.  It was a style dictated by its shock value.  We saw much of Rousseau and much of this deliberate undercutting of norms in Jerry Rubin’s book Do It! when he said “Man was born to let his hair grown long and to smell like a man.  We are descended from the apes, and we’re proud of our ancestry.  We’re natural men lost in the world of machines and computers.  Long hair is more beautiful than short hair.  We love our bodies.  We even smell our armpits once in a while.”[16]

            It is highly doubtful whether these would be the permanent values of a collectivist society brought about by the New Left.  There have been some socialist authors, such as Fourier, who have pointed somewhat toward a sensual and relaxed way of life; in fact, the attack on bourgeois norms has been an integral part of the Left since its beginning.  But for the most part an intellectual is a perfectionist.  Except when it is tactically useful, he is probably not ultimately tolerant of the uncommitted dilettante and slob.  One suspects that a future Lenin would make short work of the likes of a Jerry Rubin, just as Lenin did of Rubin’s counterparts in his own day.  And if this is so, the “do your own thing” philosophy of the New Left must be understood as merely a transitional phase. 

            In keeping with the spirit shown by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Bentham and Coleridge, I would agree that there is much to be learned from each of the modern social philosophies, since each has seen its own aspect of the human condition.  But I would again warn the reader against jumping to the type of relativistic eclecticism that so many undergraduates, for example, choose as the lazy way out.  If we are mentally responsible, there is no substitute for the most considered evaluation of what the social reality really is.  Our concept of freedom will then take its place as part of our understanding of that reality.



[1]   F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 11; Dwight D. Murphey, Emergent Man (Denver: self-published, 1962), p. 66.

[2]   Ray B. Browne, The Burke-Paine Controversy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), p. 202.

[3]   Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1969), p. 301.

[4]   Browne, p. 22.

[5]   Joseph B. Gittler, Social Thought Among the Early Greeks (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1941), pp. 150-157.

[6]   Thomas Kirkup, History of Socialism (New York: Macmillan Company, 1909), p. 102.

[7]   Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1960), p. 120.  

[8]   Julien Benda, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1930).

[9]   For a description of the many thinkers who made up this revolt against the Enlightenment, see Reinhold Aris, History of Political Thought in Germany, From 1789-1815 (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd, 1936).

[10]   The Volkish movement is described in detail in George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964).

[11]   The German Youth Movement is analyzed in detail in Howard Becker, German Youth: Bond or Free (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) and in Walter Z. Laqueur, Young Germany (New York: Basic Books Publishing Co., Inc., 1962).

[12]   George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966), pp. 315-316.

[13]   Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Portable Emerson (New York: Viking Press, 1946), pp. 110, 112.

[14]   A good discussion of the German Historical School and of its impact upon American intellectual life is found in Jurgen Herbst’s The German Historical School in American Scholarship (Cornell University Press, 1965).

[15]   Hubert H. Humphrey, The Cause is Mankind (New York: Mcfadden Books, 1965), p. 66.

[16]   Jerry Rubin, Do It! (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 97.