Liberal socialism

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Liberal socialism is a political philosophy that incorporates liberal principles to socialism. [1] Liberal socialism has been compared to post-war social democracy [2] as it supports a mixed economy that includes both private property and social ownership in capital goods. [3] While social democracy is anti-capitalist insofar as criticism of capitalism is linked to the private ownership of the means of production, [4] liberal socialism identifies artificial and legalistic monopolies to be the fault of capitalism [5] and opposes an entirely unregulated market economy. [6] It considers both liberty and equality to be compatible and mutually dependent on each other. [1] Liberal socialism is a type of socialism that has been most prominent in the post-war period. For Ian Adams, post-war social democracy and socialist New Labour are examples of liberal socialism, in contrast to classical socialism. However, those two forms of liberal socialism are based on two different economic theories, namely Keynesianism and supply side, respectively. [2] According to Christopher Pierson, "actually existing liberal democracy is, in substantial part, a product of socialist (social democratic) forces". [7] According to Ian Hunt, liberal socialism is an alternative social ideal grounded in both socialist Karl Marx and liberal John Rawls. [8]


Principles that can be described as liberal socialist are based on the works of liberal, left-liberal, radical and socialist economists and philosophers such as Roberto Ardigò, [9] Eduard Bernstein, [10] Henry Charles Carey, [11] G. D. H. Cole, [10] Jean Hippolyte Colins de Ham  [ fr ], [12] John Dewey, [10] Eugen Dühring, [11] Henry George, [11] François Huet  [ fr ], [12] Peter Kropotkin, [11] John Locke, [13] John Stuart Mill, [10] William Ogilvie of Pittensear, [14] Thomas Paine, [15] Karl Polanyi, [16] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, [11] Carlo Rosselli, [10] Adam Smith, [17] Thomas Spence, [14] Herbert Spencer [18] and Léon Walras. [19] Other important liberal socialist figures include Norberto Bobbio, [20] Guido Calogero  [ it ], [21] Anthony Crosland, [22] Piero Gobetti, [23] Theodor Hertzka, [11] Leonard Hobhouse, [22] Oszkár Jászi, [24] John Maynard Keynes, [25] Josef Macek  [ cz ], [14] Chantal Mouffe, [10] Franz Oppenheimer, [26] John Rawls [27] and R. H. Tawney. [28] To Polanyi, liberal socialism's goal was overcoming exploitative aspects of capitalism by expropriation of landlords and opening to all the opportunity to own land. [16] For Polanyi, it represented the culmination of a tradition initiated by the physiocrats, among others. [11]

Liberal socialism has been particularly prominent in British and Italian politics. [6] Its seminal ideas can be traced to John Stuart Mill, who theorised that capitalist societies should experience a gradual process of socialisation through worker-controlled enterprises, coexisting with private enterprises. [29] Mill rejected centralised models of socialism that he thought might discourage competition and creativity, but he argued that representation is essential in a free government and democracy could not subsist if economic opportunities were not well distributed, therefore conceiving democracy not just as form of representative government, but as an entire social organisation. [30] While socialists have been hostile to liberalism, accused of "providing an ideological cover for the depredation of capitalism", it has been pointed out that "the goals of liberalism are not so different from those of the socialists", although this similarly in goals has been described as being deceptive due to the different meanings liberalism and socialism give to liberty, equality and solidarity. [31]



Leandro N. Alem, founder of liberal socialism in Argentina's politics and head of the Revolution of the Park Leandro N. Alem.jpg
Leandro N. Alem, founder of liberal socialism in Argentina's politics and head of the Revolution of the Park

During the National Autonomist Party governments, liberal socialism emerged in Argentina's politics as opposed to the Julio Argentino Roca's ruling conservative liberalism. A first spokesperson of the new trend was Leandro N. Alem, founder of the Radical Civil Union. Liberal socialists never governed in Argentina, but they constituted the main opposition from 1880 to 1914 and again from 1930 until the rise of Peronism. Juan B. Justo (an Alem's disciple), José Ingenieros, Nicolás Repetto, Moisés Lebensohn, the Dickman brothers and Alicia Moreau de Justo are among the representatives of the trend during the Década Infame in the 1930s as part of the Radical Civic Union or the Socialist Party. [32]

José Ingenieros' work has had diffusion all over Latin America. [33] In the 2003 Argentine general election, Ricardo López Murphy (who has denominated himself a liberal socialist in the tradition of Alem and Juan Bautista Alberdi) ended third with 16.3% of the popular vote. [34] Contemporary Argentine liberal socialists include Mario Bunge [35] and Juan José Sebreli. [36]


Chantal Mouffe is a prominent Belgian advocate of liberal socialism. [37] She describes liberal socialism as the following:

To deepen and enrich the pluralist conquests of liberal democracy, the articulation between political liberalism and individualism must be broken, to make possible a new approach to individuality that restores its social nature without reducing it to a simple component of an organic whole. This is where the socialist tradition of thought might still have something to contribute to the democratic project and herein lies the promise of a liberal socialism. [37]


John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, influential 19th-century English thinker of liberalism who adopted some socialist views John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870.jpg
John Stuart Mill, influential 19th-century English thinker of liberalism who adopted some socialist views

The main liberal English thinker John Stuart Mill's early economic philosophy was one of free markets. However, he accepted interventions in the economy such as a tax on alcohol, if there were sufficient utilitarian grounds. He also accepted the principle of legislative intervention for the purpose of animal welfare. [38] Mill originally believed that equality of taxation meant equality of sacrifice and that progressive taxation penalised those who worked harder and saved more and therefore was a "mild form of robbery". [39]

Given an equal tax rate regardless of income, Mill agreed that inheritance should be taxed. A utilitarian society would agree that everyone should be equal one way or another. Therefore, receiving inheritance would put one ahead of society unless taxed on the inheritance. Those who donate should consider and choose carefully where their money goes—some charities are more deserving than others. Considering public charities boards such as a government will disburse the money equally. However, a private charity board like a church would disburse the monies fairly to those who are in more need than others. [40]

Mill later altered his views toward a more socialist bent, adding chapters to his Principles of Political Economy in defence of a socialist outlook and defending some socialist causes. [41] Within this revised work, he also made the radical proposal that the whole wage system be abolished in favour of a co-operative wage system. [42] Nonetheless, some of his views on the idea of flat taxation remained, [43] albeit altered in the third edition of the Principles of Political Economy to reflect a concern for differentiating restrictions on unearned incomes which he favoured; and those on earned incomes which he did not favour. [44]

In the case of Oxford University, Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, was the standard text until 1919 when it was replaced by Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics . As Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had during an earlier period, Mill's Principles of Economy dominated economics teaching and was one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period. [45]

In later editions of Principles of Political Economy, Mill would argue that "as far as economic theory was concerned, there is nothing in principle in economic theory that precludes an economic order based on socialist policies". [46] At some point, Mill also promoted substituting capitalist businesses with worker cooperatives, [47] writing:

The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and work-people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves. [48]

Ethical socialism

R. H. Tawney, founder of ethical socialism R. H. Tawney.jpg
R. H. Tawney, founder of ethical socialism

Liberal socialism has exercised influence in British politics, especially in the variant known as ethical socialism. [49] A key component of ethical socialism is in its emphasis on moral and ethical critiques of capitalism and building a case for socialism on moral or spiritual grounds as opposed to rationalist and materialist grounds. Ethical socialists advocated a mixed economy that involves an acceptance of a role of both public enterprise as well as socially responsible private enterprise. [50] Ethical socialism was founded by Christian socialist R. H. Tawney and its ideals were also connected to Fabian and guild-socialist values. [51]

It emphasises the need for a morally conscious economy based upon the principles of service, cooperation and social justice while opposing possessive individualism. [52] Ethical socialism is distinct in its focus on criticism of the ethics of capitalism and not merely criticism of material issues of capitalism. Tawney denounced the self-seeking amoral and immoral behaviour that he claimed is supported by capitalism. [53] He opposed what he called the "acquisitive society" that causes private property to be used to transfer surplus profit to "functionless owners"—capitalist rentiers. [52] However, Tawney did not denounce managers as a whole, believing that management and employees could join together in a political alliance for reform. [52] He supported the pooling of surplus profit through means of progressive taxation to redistribute these funds to provide social welfare, including public health care, public education and public housing. [54]

Tawney advocated nationalisation of strategic industries and services. [55] He also advocated worker participation in the business of management in the economy as well as consumer, employee, employer and state cooperation in the economy. [55] Though he supported a substantial role for public enterprise in the economy, Tawney stated that where private enterprise provided a service that was commensurate with its rewards that was functioning private property, then a business could be usefully and legitimately be left in private hands. [50] Ethical socialist Thomas Hill Green supported the right of equal opportunity for all individuals to be able freely appropriate property, but he claimed that acquisition of wealth did not imply that an individual could do whatever they wanted to once that wealth was in their possession. Green opposed "property rights of the few" that were preventing the ownership of property by the many. [56]

Ethical socialism is an important ideology of the British Labour Party. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee supported the ideology, which played a large role in his party's policies during the postwar 1940s. [57] Half a century after Attlee's tenure, Tony Blair, another Labour Prime Minister, also described himself as an adherent of ethical socialism, which for him embodies the values of "social justice, the equal worth of each citizen, equality of opportunity, community". [58] Influenced by Attlee and John Macmurray (who himself was influenced by Green), [59] Blair has defined the ideology in similar terms as earlier adherents—with an emphasis on the common good, rights and responsibilities as well as support of an organic society in which individuals flourish through cooperation. [59] Blair argued that Labour ran into problems in the 1960s and 1970s when it abandoned ethical socialism and that its recovery required a return to the values promoted by the Attlee government. [6] However, Blair's critics (both inside and outside Labour) have accused him of completely abandoning socialism in favour of capitalism. [60]


Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany (1969-1974) Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F057884-0009, Willy Brandt.jpg
Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany (1969–1974)

An early version of liberal socialism was developed in Germany by Franz Oppenheimer. [61] Although he was committed to socialism, Oppenheimer's theories inspired the development of the social liberalism that was pursued by German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, who said the following: "As long as I live, I will not forget Franz Oppenheimer! I will be as happy if the social market economy—as perfect or imperfect as it might be—continues to bear witness to the work, to the intellectual stance of the ideas and teachings of Franz Oppenheimer". [61]

In the 1930s, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), a reformist socialist political party that was up to then based upon revisionist Marxism, began a transition away from Marxism towards liberal socialism. After it was banned by the Nazi regime in 1933, the SPD acted in exile through the Sopade. In 1934, the Sopade began to publish material that indicated that the SPD was turning towards liberal socialism. [62]

Curt Heyer  [ de ], a prominent proponent of liberal socialism within the Sopade, declared that Sopade represented the tradition of Weimar Republic social democracy (a form of liberal democratic socialism) and declared that Sopade's held true to its mandate of traditional liberal principles combined with the political realism of socialism. [63] After the restoration of democracy in West Germany, the SPD's Godesberg Program in 1959 eliminated the party's remaining Marxist policies. The SPD then became officially based upon liberal socialism (German : freiheitlicher Sozialismus). [64] West German Chancellor Willy Brandt has been identified as a liberal socialist. [65]


In 1919, the Hungarian politician Oszkár Jászi declared his support for what he termed "liberal socialism" while denouncing "communist socialism". [66] Opposed to classical social democracy's prevalent focus on support from the working class, Jászi saw the middle class and smallholder peasants as essential to the development of socialism and spoke of the need of a "radical middle-class". [66] His views were especially influenced by events in Hungary in 1919 involving the Bolshevik revolution during which he specifically denounced the Marxist worldview shortly after the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, calling his views "Anti-Marx". His criticism of orthodox Marxism was centered on its mechanical and value-free and amoral methodology. [67] He argued that "[i]n no small measure, the present terrible, bewildering world crisis is a consequence of Marxism's mechanical Communism and amoral nihilism. New formulas of spirit, freedom and solidarity have to be found". [67]

Jászi promoted a form of co-operative socialism that included liberal principles of freedom, voluntarism and decentralization. [66] He counterpoised this ideal version of socialism with the then-existing political system in the Soviet Union, which he identified as based upon dictatorial and militarist perils, statism and a crippled economic order where competition and quality are disregarded. [68]

Jászi's views on socialism and especially his works justifying the denouncement of Bolshevik communism came back into Hungarian public interest in the 1980s when copies of his manuscripts were discovered and were smuggled into Hungary that was then under communist party-rule. [68]


Carlo Rosselli, Italian proponent of liberal socialism Carlo Rosselli 1.jpg
Carlo Rosselli, Italian proponent of liberal socialism

Italian socialist Carlo Rosselli was inspired by the definition of socialism by the founder of social democracy, Eduard Bernstein, who defined socialism as "organised liberalism". Rosselli expanded on Bernstein's arguments by developing his notion of liberal socialism (Italian : socialismo liberale). [69] In 1925, Rosselli defined the ideology in his work of the same name in which he supported the type of socialist economy defined by socialist economist Werner Sombart in Der modern Kapitalismus (1908) that envisaged a new modern mixed economy that included both public and private property, limited economic competition and increased economic cooperation. [70]

While appreciating principles of liberalism as an ideology that emphasised liberation, Rosselli was deeply disappointed with liberalism as a system that he described as having been used by the bourgeoisie to support their privileges while neglecting the liberation components of liberalism as an ideology and thus viewed conventional liberalism as a system that had merely become an ideology of "bourgeois capitalism". [71] At the same time, Rosselli appreciated socialism as an ideology, but he was also deeply disappointed with conventional socialism as a system. [72]

In response to his disappointment with conventional socialism in practice, Roselli declared: "The recent experiences, all the experiences of the past thirty years, have hopelessly condemned the primitive programs of the socialists. State socialism especially—collectivist, centralising socialism—has been defeated". [72] Rosselli's liberal socialism was partly based upon his study and admiration of British political themes of the Fabian Society and John Stuart Mill (he was able to read the English versions of Mill's work On Liberty prior to its availability in Italian that began in 1925). His admiration of British socialism increased after his visit to the United Kingdom in 1923 where he met George Drumgoole Coleman, R. H. Tawney and other members of the Fabian Society. [73]

An important component of Italian liberal socialism developed by Rosselli was its anti-fascism. [74] Rosselli opposed fascism and believed that fascism would only be defeated by a revival of socialism. [74] Rosselli founded Giustizia e Libertà as a resistance movement founded in the 1930s in opposition to the Fascist regime in Italy. [75] Ferruccio Parri—who later became Prime Minister of Italy—and Sandro Pertini—who later became President of Italy—were among Giustizia e Libertà's leaders. [71] Giustizia e Libertà was committed to militant action to fight the Fascist regime and it saw Benito Mussolini as a ruthless murderer who himself deserved to be killed as punishment. [76] Various early schemes were designed by the movement in the 1930s to assassinate Mussolini, including one dramatic plan of using an aircraft to drop a bomb on Piazza Venezia where Mussolini resided. [74] Rosselli was also a prominent member of the liberal-socialist Action Party. [77]

Sandro Pertini, President of Italy (1978-1985) Pertini ritratto.jpg
Sandro Pertini, President of Italy (1978–1985)

After Rosselli's death, liberal socialism was developed in Italian political thought by Guido Calogero  [ it ]. [21] Unlike Rosselli, Calogero considered the ideology as a unique ideology called liberalsocialism (Italian: liberalsocialismo) that was separate from existing liberal and socialist ideologies. [21] Calogero created the "First Manifesto of Liberalsocialism" in 1940 [78] that stated the following:

At the basis of liberalsocialism stands the concept of the substantial unity and identity of ideal reason, which supports and justifies socialism in its demand for justice as much as it does liberalism in its demand for liberty. This ideal reason coincides with that same ethical principle to whose rule humanity and civilization, both past and future, must always measure up. This is the principle by which we recognize the personhood of others in contrast to our own person and assign to each of them a right to own their own. [78]

After World War II, Ferruccio Parri of the liberal socialist Action Party briefly served as Prime Minister of Italy in 1945. [79] In 1978, liberal socialist Sandro Pertini of the Italian Socialist Party was elected President of Italy in 1978 and served as President until 1985. [80]

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  1. 1 2 Gaus & Kukathas 2004, p. 420.
  2. 1 2 Adams 1999, p. 127, "Social Democracy to New Labour".
  3. Pugliese 1999, p. 99; Thompson 2006, pp. 60–61.
  4. Docherty & Lamb 2006, pp. 1–2.
  5. Bartlett 1970, p. 32: "Liberal socialism, for example, is unequivocally in favour of the free market economy and of freedom of action for the individual and recognises in legalistic and artificial monopolies the real evils of capitalism."
  6. 1 2 3 Bastow & Martin 2003, p. 72.
  7. Pierson 1995, p. 71: "If the contrast which 1989 highlights is not that between socialism in the East and liberal democracy in the West, the latter must be recognized to have been shaped, reformed and compromised by a century of social democratic pressure. Whatever the recent ascendancy in some quarters of neo-liberal parties and/or policies, social democratic forces remain deeply entrenched in the social fabric. In practice, social democratic and socialist parties within the constitutional arena in the West have almost always been involved in a politics of compromise with existing capitalist institutions (to whatever far distant prize its eyes might from time to time have been lifted). These have always been grounds for condemnation by those 'further to the left'. Yet, if advocates of the death of socialism accept that social democrats belong within the socialist camp, as I think they must, then the contrast between socialism (in all its variants) and liberal democracy must collapse. For actually existing liberal democracy is, in substantial part, a product of socialist (social democratic) forces."
  8. Hunt 2015, p. 112–113.
  9. Rosselli 1994, p. 51.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Urbinati 2007, p. 101.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Dale 2016, "Bourgeois Radicalism: A Hegemonic Project".
  12. 1 2 Fried 2004, p. 66.
  13. Tyler 2012, pp. 259–280.
  14. 1 2 3 Doležalová 2018, pp. 95–96.
  15. Kates 1989.
  16. 1 2 Dale 2016, p. 61.
  17. Brown 2007, p. 237; Dale 2016, "Bourgeois Radicalism: A Hegemonic Project".
  18. Rosselli 1994, p. 51; Weinstein 1998: "[C]ooperation is, of course, arguably a form of socialism as much as form of liberalism."; Offer 2000, p. 137: "Several labels might be tied to this family member; the practitioners favoured "moral or liberal socialism," at times "socialism of the will."; Dale 2016, "Bourgeois Radicalism: A Hegemonic Project"; Bobbio 2015, p. 6: "One handbook of socialist propaganda advised readers to "first read any summary of Darwin and Spencer that gives the student the general direction of modern thought, then turn to Marx to complete the formidable triad that worthily makes up the gospel of contemporary Socialists."
  19. Cirillo 1980, p. 295; Fried 2004, p. 66; Potier 2011, p. 114; De Buen 2019: "Interestingly, Walras was a self-described socialist (albeit with some qualifications). His brand of socialism is closer to what is now commonly referred to as Georgism, due to American economist Henry George (though Walras first published on the subject in 1861, a few years before George). Walras advocated for a free market economy in which capital, production, and exchange remain in the hands of private actors. However, he also proposed the full socialization of the product of land. This included, not only taxation on land value but even the repurchase of all land by the state so that it could be publicly owned and land rents could become socialized wealth."; Muellwe 2020.
  20. Davidson 1995; Urbinati 2007, p. 101.
  21. 1 2 3 Bresser-Pereira 2004, p. 84.
  22. 1 2 Gamble & Wright 1999, p. 166, "'Rights and Responsabilities': A Social Democratic Perspective".
  23. Bresser-Pereira 2004, p. 104.
  24. Litván 2006, p. 125; Dale 2016, "Bourgeois Radicalism: A Hegemonic Project".
  25. Dardot & Laval 2014, p. 39.
  26. Rep 2000, p. 238; Dale 2016, "Bourgeois Radicalism: A Hegemonic Project"; Doležalová 2018, p. 95.
  27. Davidson 1995; Kerr 2017.
  28. Dale 2016.
  29. Miller 2003, pp. 213–238.
  30. Brilhante & Rocha 2010, pp. 17–27.
  31. Boyd & Harrison 2003, pp. 220–222; Anton & Schmitt 2012, pp. 3–4.
  32. Rodríguez Braun 2019.
  33. Morales Brito 2014, pp. 115–118.
  34. Rey 2003.
  35. Bunge 2016, pp. 345–347; Katy 2019, pp. 513–534.
  36. Rey 2003; García 2018.
  37. 1 2 Coperías-Aguilar 2000, p. 39.
  38. Linzey 2002; Morris 2002.
  39. Pellerin 2009.
  40. Strasser 1991.
  41. Bentham & Mill 2004, p. 11.
  42. Wilson 2007, "Political Economy"; Hill 2020, p. 52.
  43. Wilson 2007, "Political Economy".
  44. Mill 1852, "On The General Principles of Taxation, V.2.14". The passage about flat taxation was altered by the author in this edition which is acknowledged in this edition's footnote 8: "This sentence replaced in the 3rd ed. a sentence of the original: "It is partial taxation, which is a mild form of robbery."
  45. Ekelund Jr. & Hébert 1997, p. 172.
  46. Wilson 2007, "Political Economy"; Baum 2007: "Mill, in contrast, advances a form of liberal democratic socialism for the enlargement of freedom as well as to realize social and distributive justice. He offers a powerful account of economic injustice and justice that is centered on his understanding of freedom and its conditions."
  47. Schwartz 2012, p. 219.
  48. Mill 1848, "IV.7.21."
  49. Dearlove & Saunders 2000, p. 427; Thompson 2006, p. 52.
  50. 1 2 Thompson 2006, pp. 60–61.
  51. Thompson 2006, pp. 52, 58, 60.
  52. 1 2 3 Thompson 2006, p. 58.
  53. Thompson 2006, p. 52.
  54. Thompson 2006, pp. 58–59.
  55. 1 2 Thompson 2006, p. 59.
  56. Carter 2003, p. 35.
  57. Howell 2006, pp. 130–132.
  58. Jackson & Tansey 2008, p. 97.
  59. 1 2 Carter 2003, pp. 189–190.
  60. Elliott, Faucher-King & Le Galès 2010, p. 18.
  61. 1 2 Rep 2000, p. 238.
  62. Edinger 1956, p. 215.
  63. Edinger 1956, pp. 219–220.
  64. Orlow 2000, p. 108.
  65. Bronner 1999, p. 104.
  66. 1 2 3 Litván 2006, p. 125.
  67. 1 2 Litván 2006, p. 199.
  68. 1 2 Litván 2006, p. 200.
  69. Rosselli 1994; Steger 2006, p. 146.
  70. Pugliese 1999, p. 99.
  71. 1 2 Pugliese 1999, p. 51.
  72. 1 2 Pugliese 1999, p. 53.
  73. Pugliese 1999, pp. 59–60.
  74. 1 2 3 Dombroski 2001, p. 122.
  75. Wilkinson 1981, p. 224.
  76. Di Scala 1996, p. 87.
  77. Bastow & Martin 2003, p. 74.
  78. 1 2 Bastow & Martin 2003, p. 84.
  79. Pugliese 1999, pp. 59–60, 236.
  80. Pugliese 1999, p. 236.


Further reading