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Lord Acton vs. the ‘New Socialists’ on Freedom

‘Lord Acton’ Public Domain

Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, wrote an interesting and troubling piece last week in the New York Times titled, “The New Socialists: Why the pitch from Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders resonates in 2018.” It is part chronicle of the recent rise of self-identified socialist politicians in the United States and part meditation on what people in 2018 mean when they talk about socialism.

Robin believes that the socialism of today is fundamentally different from its 19th and 20th century predecessors. During this period many socialists believed that scientific state management of production and distribution would lead to greater prosperity by getting rid of inefficient market mechanisms like competition (For the most devastating critique of this see Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis). Speaking of contemporary arguments Robin says, “The Socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.”

This argument is unsurprising and I had it in mind as I wrote the introduction to Lord Acton: Historical and Moral Essays arguing that,

The nature of liberty—that motive of good deeds and common pretext of crime—is contested: “No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of liberty.” It is contested to this day by liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and socialists, who all claim to be the champions of authentic freedom. From everywhere and everyone we hear calls for freedom on all sides of contentious issues.

The argument that one is not free as long as one is subject to the demands of others be they bosses, churches, and even the family itself is an idea rooted in even early pre-Marxian socialism. Lord Acton’s most concise definition of liberty strikes a similar cord when he states, “By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, customs and opinion.” There is, however, a subtle and significant difference which is made clear by Robin’s citation of Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s attempt to define socialism, “Socialism is the name of our desire.” This socialist definition of freedom, shared by even many free market advocates, is freedom from constraints to perform our desire while Acton’s is freedom from constraints to perform our duty, to do what we ought.

In his essay, “The Roman Question”, Acton fleshed out this distinction,

“There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.”

Part of the exercise of our freedom to do our duty is to act for ourselves and not to act for others. Navigating conflicts of interest, demanding our rights of conscience, and recognizing the demands of the consciences of others is the tricky business which the liberal political order, markets, the church, the family, and other institutions of civil society strive to do. And while this work is always needed and often done imperfectly it has led to greater peace and prosperity than any system of state socialism this world has ever seen.

While I am encouraged that the New Socialists have abandoned long discredited arguments that socialism is the path to greater wealth in society the notion that freedom is synonymous with socialism and can be won by, as Rubin argues, “Mass action — sometimes illegal, always confrontational…” and that, “…it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where “there” is.”, is disconcerting to say the least. If the New Socialists really want freedom Acton points to a more peaceful, realistic, and morally rooted vision of, “The society that is beyond the state – the individual souls that are above it.”

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.