X Close

Are socialists liberal? A response to Maajid Nawaz

October 8, 2019 - 6:30pm

A thought provoking tweet from Maajid Nawaz:


While this used to be true, I’m not sure it is anymore – in fact I’d argue that most of the contemporary Left, including the self-declared socialist component, is liberal though-and-through.

Classical socialism – whether of the democratic Old Labour variety or the totalitarian Soviet kind – really was about collectivism and group identity, especially class identity. It did not prioritise the maximisation of individual liberty – and, in many cases, sought to minimise it. It was therefore non-liberal or downright anti-liberal.

However, it’s important to realise that liberalism (which does prioritise the maximisation of individual liberty) isn’t necessarily against the expanding, interventionist state favoured by Left-wingers. Indeed, Left-leaning liberals see the state more as a facilitator of personal freedom than a threat to it – i.e. they believe that the purpose of the state is to provide individuals with many of the things they need to exercise choice. After all, if you’re poor, sick, starving and illiterate, then, realistically, your options are limited.

Socialists also want a state that provides people with their material needs – not specifically to enable individual choice, but as an ends in itself. Furthermore, as the state has become ever more capable in this regard (or at least has more resources to work with), other forms of solidarity – especially within working class communities – have been displaced. Therefore contemporary Leftism, shorn of its traditional roots, is pretty much indistinguishable from big state liberalism.

But hasn’t the contemporary Left adopted alternative forms of group identity – especially the Woke Left’s and its preoccupation with race, gender, sexuality and the various intersections thereof? Isn’t this a substitute for the class-based collectivism of yore – and equally at odds with liberal individualism?

No, because this sort of identity politics – for all its public expressions of ‘solidarity with’ – is focused on rights, not responsibilities. Indeed, it serves the left-liberal objective of freeing the individual from the burden of personal responsibility. One need not worry about one’s own failures – or the successes of others – because it all comes down to privilege anyway. This is a liberation of a sort – a life of choice without consequence.

Obviously this is at odds with the classical liberal tradition and its emphasis on self-reliance, but then liberalism, like socialism, ain’t what it used to be.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments