Civil Liberties and Socialism Don't Mix

Democratic socialists say they believe in civil liberties, but their ideology is and will always be hostile to individual freedom.


Rick Friedman/Polaris/Newscom

In 1981, the socialist economist and best-selling author Robert Heilbroner took to the pages of the democratic socialist magazine, Dissent, to answer what would seem like a rather academic question, "What is Socialism?" His answer was a raw, honest, and devastating critique of democratic socialism from a man wrestling with his faith. In his essay, Heilbroner—reminiscent of a similar definitional debate today among progressives and socialists—explained that socialism is not a more generous welfare state along Nordic lines. Instead, it is something entirely different, an economic and cultural configuration that suppresses if not eliminates the market economy and the alienating and selfish culture it produces.

"If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation," Heilbroner wrote. "Indeed, that is what planning means. Command by planning need not, of course, be totalitarian. But an aspect of authoritarianism resides inextricably in all planning systems. A plan is meaningless if it is not carried out, or if it can be ignored or defied at will."

As Heilbroner reluctantly acknowledged, socialist planning cannot co-exist with individual rights, an achievement of Western culture he wanted to preserve. Instead, under socialism, culture must produce "some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity." This, however, was antagonistic to "bourgeois" culture, which "encourages and breeds the idea of the primary importance of the individual." And bourgeois culture, devoted to the sovereignty of the individual, he wrote, "naturally asserts the rights of individuals to speak their minds freely, to act as they wish within reasonable grounds, to behave as John Stuart Mill preached in his treatise On Liberty." A socialist culture, Heilbroner feared correctly, couldn't abide this "celebration of individualism" because it is "directly opposed to the basic socialist commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal."

Most of today's democratic socialists, however, don't have the same doubts or circumspection of Heilbroner. The resurgent Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) argue that under democratic socialism "individual civil and political rights…which are routinely violated, would be strengthened, and public resources would be devoted to the development of a genuinely free press and a democratically-administered mass media." Lefty Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin—in a howler of a puff piece for The New York Times on "The New Socialists" such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders—argues that "what the socialist seeks is freedom."

This rhetoric, however, is profoundly ignorant of history and the internal logic of socialist ideology, as Heilbroner diagnosed it, or it's artifice. There is only one kind of democracy that socialists can create, and that is an illiberal one, where the "majority"—I suspect some kind of vanguard in reality—engages, yet once again, in massive experiments in social engineering in an attempt purge people of their nasty habits.

Democratic socialists will no doubt sneer at such an argument, but how could it be otherwise when the self-proclaimed goal of democratic socialists, according to DSA member and Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day, is to "end capitalism." To engage in such a project, however, can lead nowhere else but tyranny.

Heilbroner understood this. In an endnote to his article, he shockingly admitted that socialism always faced "two historic problems" that he "deliberately passed over" in his essay. "The first is the necessity to intervene deeply, and probably ruthlessly, into the economy in order to establish the socialist order in the first place," he wrote. "The second is the need to continue a policy of painful intervention to accommodate the socialist economy, once set in place, to the constricting limits of the environment."

But no social engineer, as any Marxist knows, can separate the economy from its political and cultural milieu. And so ruthless intervention in the economy necessitates ruthless intervention in politics and culture. A thought experiment is therefore in order if we take democratic socialists, like Day, seriously in their pursuit of capitalism's destruction.

Say a democratic socialist like Ocasio-Cortez does one day achieve the presidency of the United States and her party takes Congress. Could democratic socialists abide a free press, one where papers like The Wall Street Journal and magazines like Reason criticize the party for its economic illiberalism? Could writers and artists critical of the regime work without fear of political repression and surveillance? Could citizens of the United States rest assure that democratic socialists would follow tradition and peacefully relinquish the reins of the government—an achievement of historical proportions—to a party they deem "capitalistic" if they lose the next election when their goal is to abolish capitalism?

I think not, if the socialists are serious about their project. In his Dissent essay, Heilbroner confronted the authoritarian problem inherent in socialism. "But under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy," he wrote. "Because socialist society aspires to be a good society, all its decisions and opinions are inescapably invested with moral import. Every disagreement with them, every argument for alternative policies, every nay-saying voice therefore raises into question the moral validity of the existing government, not merely its competence in directing activities that have no particular moral significance."

Democratic socialists cannot remain democratic if they want their utopian vision to succeed. They also, regardless of what they argue, cannot be civil libertarians, as Heilbroner suspected. The collective, undergirded by the power of the state, will always triumph over the messiness of the individual's liberty to think, speak, write, work, and associate as they wish. Democratic socialism is not freedom, despite what the Corey Robins of the world argue. It is authority paternalistically dressed up in the language of liberation and wielded on behalf of that fuzzy abstraction, "the people," regardless of what flesh and blood individuals want.

Capitalism and liberal democracy are far from perfect, but they do allow room for what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living," where socialists, libertarians, and everyone else in between can pursue their idea of the good life. And that's a society worth defending from the reactionaries who out of ignorance or malice call themselves freedom fighters.