Historically the labour movement has a proud record of defending liberty and fighting for democratic rights in and out of the workplace. But its Marxist wing - despite conceptualising socialism as the democratic self-organisation of the working class - has bequeathed a more ambiguous legacy to the present generation of revolutionary socialists. Too often the revolutionary left has been seen to apologise for anti-democratic movements in the name of anti-imperialism, downplay the importance of "bourgeois" democracy, and erect petty tyrannies in its own organisations. Why would anyone outside our movement take what it has to say about liberty and freedom seriously?
Coupled with the far left's difficulties we shouldn't be too surprised not many have. In civil liberties discourse, "humanitarian" imperialists duke it out with mainstream liberals and right wing libertarians. Independent working class politics don't get a look in, though it is our class and especially the more oppressed and marginalised elements of it that disproportionately suffer the sharp end of the surveillance state. It's about time our voice was heard. But to win hegemony over this contested terrain not only must we constantly check our own political practice, we have to investigate and critique the ideas our opponents draw upon.
Socialism is, among other things, the ideological heir to liberalism. Both are products of class struggles against tyranny and grew to maturity in the fertile climate of Enlightenment thinking. But classical liberalism has settled into being an ideology of the status quo. Like all establishment ideas it has (in its own terms) principled objections and criticisms of the management of capitalist societies. But it shies away from fundamental critique. It is in basic agreement with the conservatives and libertarians to its right; that market economies and market relationships tend to best express individual liberty and freedom better than anything else. But liberalism is guilty of a one-dimensional view of these relationships. Here the freedom to buy and sell is set up as an exchange between equals. In a legal sense, this is true - all are equal before the law. But substantively this is not the case. For socialists the compulsion of propertyless labourers to sell their labour power in return for a wage is no freedom at all. Likewise liberalism may oppose state tyranny, but it has little to say about the tyranny of the workplace. Therefore socialism is, in one sense, consistent liberalism. Whereas the latter limits its attention to politics and the public sphere and regards what happens in the workplace as a "private" matter between employer and employee, socialism stands for extending the political rights and liberties citizens enjoy into economics. In short, where liberty conflicts with private ownership in the means of production, socialism says liberty should win every time.
It's with this in mind I'll be writing about On Liberty over the next few weeks. By no means I'm pretending to a comprehensive study of the essay or delivering a socialist "final verdict" on Mill's arguments. I do believe he did have some things of value to say, even if it was fundamentally compromised by the political tradition to which he belonged, and these are ideas socialists will find of use today.
Edit: All the posts on On Liberty are listed below:
Liberty and Individual Sovereignty
John Stuart Mill's Debating Ethics
John Stuart Mill's Elitism
The Limits of the Individual and Authority
Mill's Applications of On Liberty
Moving Beyond Liberalism