What Is Liberal Socialism?

What Is Liberal Socialism?

Liberalism and socialism are modernist doctrines committed to the moral equality and freedom of all human beings. Both doctrines responded critically to the ancient belief, espoused famously by Aristotle in his Politics, that some were by nature unequal (which is a nice way of saying inferior)—whether in virtue, piety, or entitlement to rule. Liberals and socialists have both failed many times in upholding their principles with conviction: the American founding fathers preached that all men were created equal while codifying slavery for profit into the Constitution and Bolshevik revolutionaries promised freedom for the masses while methodically constructing gulags and crushing dissent. Despite sharing a mixed legacy and many common values—certainly relative to the forces of reaction—liberals and socialists have portrayed each other as existential enemies. The latter half of the 20th century was defined by an epic clash between liberal capitalism and Soviet Marxist-Leninism that seemed to end decidedly in favor of the former. Once upon a time the young Francis Fukuyama even declared that we’d reached “the end of history” with liberal capitalism now the sole surviving ideology with any global credibility.

This judgment turned out to be premature. Liberalism faced a new and potentially lethal crisis of legitimacy in the 2010s with the emergence of post-modern conservative anti-liberals like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Victor Orbán. By 2018 most major countries in the world—the United States, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Italy, and India—were governed by illiberal strongmen with questionable democratic allegiances. Emboldened critics on the political right insist it’s long past time to abandon modernity wholesale and get back to what worked before liberals and socialists mucked everything up. This crisis of legitimacy was fostered by many of the features of liberal capitalism which socialists had long been critical of: skyrocketing inequality, deepening economic precarity, the decay of solidaristic community in favor of hyper-competitiveness, and above all a sense that state institutions served the interests of a global elite rather than their own citizens. Unsurprisingly this has also given socialism a renewed appeal, which propelled politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Lula da Silva to global prominence. Given this, it is important to renew the dialogue between liberalism and socialism. I will do this by putting forward an argument for a kind of democratic liberal socialism. While some may claim that this is simply an oxymoron, it in fact has deep roots in the expressive individualist strain of the liberal tradition and has been espoused by important authors like J. S. Mill, John Rawls, and Chantal Mouffe.

Liberal possessive individualism

Before we think about how liberalism and socialism can be reconciled, we should consider why they have historically been at odds. We can start by distinguishing between the possessive individualism of someone like Locke or Madison, and the expressive individualism of a liberal socialist like Mill or Rawls. This distinction enables us to see how some believe that liberalism and socialism are destined to be at odds with one another, while others perceive a deep affinity between the two doctrines.

The term “possessive individualism” was coined by the Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson in his classic book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Macpherson argued that, beginning in the 17th century, classical and proto-liberals like Hobbes and Locke conceived of society as a collection of morally equal atomic individuals who pursued their self-interest in competition with one another. These individuals owed nothing to each other, and consequently each labored to improve their conditions through the acquisition of private property. The purest espousal of this view was in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, where he described how individuals in a state of nature mixed their labor into the matter of the land and therefore gained an entitlement to it. However, the theorists of possessive individualism recognized that neither individual autonomy nor private property would be effectively protected in a state of nature—Hobbes’ infamous “warre of all against all.” Consequently, at some point rational possessive individualists would agree to create a powerful state, a leviathan, whose job it was to protect both individual rights to autonomy and property.

The key question was how from a state of moral equality and equal rights in the state of nature we saw a transition to material and political inequality. This was important for the theorists of possessive individualism, who wanted to deny the kind of natural or religious inequalities insisted upon by reactionary defenders of absolutism while upholding those that emerged as a result of labor and market relations. In this respect Macpherson saw them as providing an ideological justification for the emergent market society of the time while vindicating the right of the capitalist class to wealth and power. The response was a two-fold argument.

Firstly, the theorists of possessive individualism argued that inequalities were already present in the state of nature. They resulted from different individuals choosing to labor more or less efficiently, thereby creating more wealth and entitlements to private property. For instance, Locke infamously denied that the original peoples of North America were entitled to their land, because even though they lived on it they did not use it for productive purposes. One of the justifications for the state was to preserve these disparities by protecting the propertied against those who sought to take what was not theirs. 

Secondly, possessive individualists argued that further inequalities had emerged when some people had acquired enough capital to hire others to work for them. Workers effectively voluntarily alienate their labor to another (the capitalist) who may keep whatever is produced so long as they pay workers a wage for it. Macpherson notes this is a conceptually strange but ideologically sensible maneuver. It is conceptually strange because one moves from the argument that an individual is entitled to keep what they labored to produce (Locke’s theory of labor mixing) to an argument where a whole class becomes entitled to live off the alienated labor of their workers. But it is ideologically sensible since it allowed possessive individualist liberals to affirm that while everyone begins as a moral equal—contra the defenders of absolutism—through hard work and voluntary contracts stark material and ultimately political inequalities will justifiably emerge.

Today, the most militant liberal opponents of socialism tend to be hyper-possessive individualists. Contra the aspirations of Irving Howe and T. H. Marshall, the hegemony of possessive individualist variants of liberalism poses the most significant barrier to conciliating between socialism and liberalism. Howe and Marshall both conceived of liberalism as an imperfect but admirable tradition where great moral concern and rights were gradually (sometimes begrudgingly) granted to a wider and wider swathe of people. By contrast, possessive individualists effectively reduce liberalism to a defense of individual autonomy, which includes a very expansive conception of property rights and a wariness of any efforts by the state to regulate the market for labor. This makes them sharply critical of any policy to redistribute wealth through high levels of taxation and the provision of public goods, not to mention efforts to raise wages or change working conditions through political action. Oftentimes the rhetoric employed by modern possessive individualists expresses opposition to the “big state” or “overreaching government.” But this is more than a little misleading, since contemporary proponents of possessive individualism are often more than willing to employ state and even international regulation and coercion to entrench and expand the reach of their favored conception of property rights. This includes mandating harsh criminal sanctions for everything from loitering to theft, insulating private property and wealth from democratic political pressures through difficult-to-amend constitutional arrangements, allowing the state to create corporate “persons” through law while denying laborers’ rights to workplace safety, and plenty else besides.

Most importantly, since these policies are often unpopular, they need to be enforced over and against the will of a majority. This is one of the reasons possessive individualists from Madison to the early Nozick have long been wary of too much democracy; a position that has culminated in overturning democratically elected leftist governments to replace them with neoliberal authoritarians where needed. All this shows that Macpherson was right when he observed that: “It is not a question of the more individualism, the less collectivism; rather the more thoroughgoing the individualism, the more complete the collectivism.” The permeation of possessive individualism in its neoliberal forms throughout the late 20th century, often against stubborn resistance, explains a lot of why so-called opponents of the “big state” like Ronald Reagan actually expanded both deficits and prison populations. It is also important when recognizing the role hyper-competitive neoliberalism played in corroding citizens’ sense of the democratic legitimacy and accountability of their governments, opening the doors to a populist politics of reaction which has rocked the globe for half a decade now.

Liberal expressive individualism

But liberalism has never been defined exclusively by its possessive individualist stream, even if that is the one which has been favored by right-wing liberals and moderate conservatives alike. There are other, more radical variants of liberalism that are far more skeptical that liberalism must be irrevocably tied to the defense of stratified property entitlements and the associated hierarchies that emerge from them. I will summarize these positions under the heading of what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age calls “expressive” individualism. These variants of liberalism are often far more amenable to the prospect of egalitarian reform and even liberal socialism. Key theoretical figures in his regard include J. S. Mill, Martha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen.

Liberal expressive individualists believe that each human life possesses an innate dignity, and one of the aims of a just society is to enable each person to develop and deepen various sides of their “selves” in their pursuit of a good life. There is usually a quasi-Romantic basis to this position, in the sense that the expression of one’s personality is regarded as essential to living a life of authenticity or integrity. But it remains distinctly liberal in its defense of personal autonomy. Not, as with possessive individualism, because each of us is considered an atomic unit distinct from all others and consequently owing little or nothing to society. But instead because autonomy or liberty is crucial to the full development of one’s self. Often expressive individualists point to the longstanding tendency of socially conservative groups to impose their norms and expectations on dissident figures. Mill put the point expertly in On Liberty when he wrote: 

so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

This last point is also crucial since expressive individualists tend to feel that each of us will benefit from exposure to diverse experiments in living, which effectively present us with different possibilities of the good life we might wish to pursue. To continue Mill’s metaphor, the more experiments in living people run the more data the rest of us will have to make intelligent judgments about the kinds of lives we might live. So we all benefit from granting others the freedom to pursue their vision of the good life in the long run, even if we may feel very strongly that some people are simply mistaken or are even engaged in a life of vice. There is also a moral element to this that relates back to the initial principles I discussed. Liberal expressivist individualists hold that since each of us is a moral equal, none of us should be entitled to impose our vision of the good life on others.

This emphasis on diversity is important, since expressive individualists are often sensitive to the ways hyper-competitive capitalism can preclude individuals from fully developing their authentic selves both as individuals, and in cooperation with others. This applies across both material and social dimensions.

Liberal expressive individualists note how possessive individualist strains of liberalism take a very narrow view of what enables someone to fully flourish. Possessive individualists tend to see forms of material deprivation and inequality that emerge from market transactions as either the desirable consequence of voluntary exchanges, or at best a necessary evil to incentivize further economic activity. By contrast expressive individualists don’t deny the productive power of capitalism, but they are concerned with how it unequally and often unfairly distributes material resources, or, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, how some people enjoy far fewer of the human “capabilities” needed to live a flourishing life. To give just one live example, the fact that millions of people in the United States don’t have access to quality health care when it is materially possible to provide it—as almost every other wealthy country does—results in massive unnecessary burdens on many poor Americans which inhibits their capacity to lead a good life. The failure to secure a genuinely rich set of fundamental human capabilities for all is made all the more unjust since it remains long marginalized peoples who are most egregiously impacted. Expressive individualists believe that social institutions should be doing a lot more to rectify this lack of capabilities, especially where these flow from historical marginalization and injustice. 

Expressive individualists also take issue with the possessive individualist interpretation of human beings as primarily uncooperative and competitive beings. This is not to say that competition is an illegitimate dimension of human life or an unimportant propellant for economic productivity. But expressive individualists rather see us as deliberative and social creatures, who develop a great deal of our sense of self and self-respect through the meaningful relations we form with others. This is true at the individual level and through the maintenance of voluntary communities reflecting everything from cultural distinctiveness to shared passions. Expressive individualists consequently look at the deepening spread of the competitive ethos to all areas of human life with alarm. One popular criticism looks at the growing stratification of post-secondary education. Currently, a rare few can pay for access to the best schools and take advantage of opportunities that most others cannot. This has a corrosive effect on our sense of community and our long term ability to form cooperative relations with others, thereby damaging our sense of self.

This was well discussed by the communitarian philosopher Michael Sandel in his recent book The Tyranny of Merit. The allegedly meritocratic ideology we’re brought up in leads those who “win” to feel they owe little to those who’ve failed, since they made it on the basis of their own talents and efforts. Often ignored in this way of thinking are the countless ways many people are held back by morally arbitrary disadvantages. By contrast those who “lose” are left to feel that they simply couldn’t cut it in our society. Sandel points out that in the long run this generates an unsustainable sense of entitlement on the part of those who benefit from hyper-competitive society and resentment on the part of those who do not. The result is a growing belief that we don’t all have the same stake in preserving the liberal political community. This point was beautifully put by political scientist Danielle Allen in her elegant book Talking to Strangers. Allen points out how many of the equitable ways citizens spoke to one another have declined in an era of sharpening partisanship and a lack of civic friendship. I would argue that hyper-competitiveness has corroded the willingness to sacrifice one’s time and energy necessary to build the trust necessary to keep democratic communities going. Why would I waste time doing that when my energies could be better directed advancing my own interests?

From an expressive individualist standpoint, this disposition to regard others with scorn or resentment is almost as negative a consequence of hyper-competitiveness as needless material deprivation. Because the social relations we form with each other in a capitalist society are so competitive (and often exploitative) the extension of possessive individualism to a growing number of spheres precludes us from developing the most reciprocal and cooperative ties necessary to developing and expressing a rich sense of self. What appears instead are individuals who can see others only as means to their own ends. Or, as Mill put it in his pamphlet Socialism “it is the parent of envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness; it makes every one the natural enemy of all others who cross his path, and every one’s path is constantly liable to be crossed.”

As I mentioned, possessive individualism is naturally an enemy wholesale to socialism. But as one might intuit, the tradition of expressive individualism is not. It shares many of the same goals and beliefs as socialism, and consequently, many liberal expressive individualists have been and should be attracted to it.

What is liberal socialism?

In those days I had seen little further than the old school of political economists into the possibilities of fundamental improvement in social arrangements. Private property, as now understood, and inheritance, appeared to me, as to them, the dernier mot of legislation: and I looked no further than to mitigating the inequalities consequent on these institutions, by getting rid of primogeniture and entails. The notion that it was possible to go further than this in removing the injustice—for injustice it is, whether admitting of a complete remedy or not—involved in the fact that some are born to riches and the vast majority to poverty, I then reckoned chimerical, and only hoped that by universal education, leading to voluntary restraint on population, the portion of the poor might be made more tolerable. In short, I was a democrat, but not the least of a Socialist. We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass: but our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists.

J. S. Mill, Autobiography

Liberal socialists seek to combine important elements of both doctrines together. From socialism we take a deep wariness of possessive individualism, a belief that each person is entitled to a very high level of material well-being, and the conviction that social cooperation and democratic deliberation are superior to competition in all but a narrow set of spheres. To invoke G. A. Cohen’s seminal essay “Why Not Socialism?” we believe a camping trip rather than Wall Street at high noon is a better model for the kind of relations and interactions most of us want to have on a daily basis. From liberalism, we take the expressive individualist’s belief that each of us should be free (and empowered) to pursue differing visions of the good life, a wariness of unchecked state and market power, and a belief that socialist reforms must be carried out democratically and without trampling on liberal rights. However, we regard the key liberal rights to be those foregrounded by expressive, rather than possessive, individualism.

This last point entails a key qualification, since the liberal socialist believes in respecting and even broadening the standard package of liberal rights; for instance through ensuring marginalized groups that have historically been excluded from liberal communities are finally recognized and steps taken to compensate for the injustice they’ve suffered. But liberal socialists emphatically reject the hyper-expansive conception of property rights held by possessive individualists. Indeed, what John Rawls would characterize as the dramatic and morally arbitrary inequities in material well-being and power that flow from such an expansive approach are regarded as more in keeping with the mythologized aristocratic ethos of pre-modernity rather than a genuinely liberal outlook which regards each of us as free moral equals. Where before inequalities in material well-being and power were justified by appeal to nature or religious mythology, now possessive individualists gesture to equally mythologized conceptions of meritocracy and personal effort; since apparently Jeff Bezos is simply thousands of times more meritorious and hard working than thousands of his employees. Given our burgeoning empirical understanding of the countless ways individuals are arbitrarily or deliberately advantaged or disadvantaged in life, it is our hope that conceptions of meritocracy will one day be regarded with the same incredulity as arguments about the divine right of kings.

Consequently, and in striking contrast to both antiquity and the reactionary outlook, for liberal socialists both moral and material equality constitute the baseline from which deviations must be justified. Not the other way around. We also argue that securing higher levels of material equality on this basis would diminish the hyper-competitiveness that has marred “meritocratic society” and has helped contribute to the rise of post-modern conservative anti-liberalism, particularly if liberal socialism is accompanied by significant efforts to build more cooperative institutions and democratic ways of life. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe made the point prophetically in her 1993 essay for Dissent, straightforwardly titled “Toward a Liberal Socialism?”:

We are witnessing today the return of many premodern forms of community with the increasing appeal of fundamentalist and populist movements. In many cases they are a reaction against the social disintegration caused by liberal individualism. When this is not the case, as in the former communist world, it is a dangerous illusion to see the remedy in the development of the very individualism that is at the origin of the problems faced by advanced liberal democracies. Hence the urgency of taking seriously the socialist critique, because it is only through the articulation between political liberalism and socialism that we will be able to create a framework in which the demands for a modern and pluralistic form of community can be met.

In practice a liberal socialist society would adopt many of the egalitarian reforms of the welfare state at its peak, but accompany them with more ambitious efforts to secure a robust democratization of the state and workplace while demanding greater inclusion for historically marginalized groups. How this could be carried out would depend a great deal on context. The Nordic model of welfarism has suffered setbacks recently, but its combination of high levels of taxation with robust social services certainly provides a helpful starting model. This should be coupled with initiatives for higher worker control of firms, à la codetermination in Germany or the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders put forward initiatives to secure higher worker representation in large corporations, suggesting there are proposals that could be built on. Not only would such democratizing efforts be good in themselves, but they could ensure that higher returns go to labor rather than capital. This would help buck the trend to higher levels of inequality well analyzed by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century as well as his more recent opus.

Liberal socialists would also undertake more conventional reforms to democratize representative state institutions and laws through more direct citizen involvement. Direct democratic legislation in the vein of Denmark’s Citizen’s Initiative or Ireland’s constitutional referendums could be a guide on these fronts. Finally, liberal socialism would also need to have a distinctly internationalist outlook which would break sharply from the statism of something like the (none the less admirable) Atleean programs put forward by the British Labour party throughout the mid-century. The 1950s are well and truly gone, and the era of globalization and interconnection mean that it is very likely that efforts at the level of the nation state would need to be heavily complemented by cosmopolitan initiatives to preserve and enhance democratic egalitarian achievements. This could include deepening commitments to foreign aid and institution building on the part of wealthy states, higher levels of legal coordination to mitigate climate change and manage its negative impacts, and curbing the efforts of powerful states to exercise hegemony over their neighbours. The last one is especially important in the increasingly multi-polar world of 21st century geopolitics, as the United States is joined by China as a rising power.


Despite both being modernist doctrines committed to moral equality and freedom, liberalism and socialism have long been at odds with one another. This is in no small part because many in both traditions believe possessive individualism exhausts the humanistic ambitions of the liberal tradition. This article tries to show why this needn’t be so, and why the expressive individualist tradition was always far more visionary and sweeping in its aspirations for liberal society. Expressive individualists like Mill and Macpherson recognized that a materially unequal and hyper-competitive society, far from realizing the deepest commitments of the modernist project, is actually a barrier to achieving dignity for all in the long run. Only a liberal socialism can ultimately fit the bill.

The failure to recognize this isn’t just a theoretical lapse. If liberal states hold to the neoliberal path, the further corrosion of cooperative solidarity and democratic legitimacy will lead to a doubling down on the politics of reactionary ressentiment. It’s long past time we got liberalism and socialism back together again in a renewed effort to create a just society where everyone has the opportunity to pursue the best and most dignified life that they are able to.

Featured image is Which future for democracy in a post-political age: a lecture by Chantal Mouffe, Wikimedia Commons.