The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Social Movements – A few Thoughts

A bit of theoretical reflection for those of a #solarpunk anarchist sensibility


Perhaps the most common term to see in popular left-wing discourse nowadays is social justice, which refers to the general practice of trying to make society more egalitarian through focusing on the empowerment of marginalised groups of people.

“Social Justice Warrior” (SJW) has even become a childish right-wing/liberal insult directed at the new generation of left activists and theorists, and at just about anyone who voices criticism of the various hierarchies which plague neoliberal society in the 21st century.

This is somewhat in contrast to the wave of social movements which characterised the 1960s and 1970s, from anti-colonialism, to black/Chicano power, to second-wave feminism, to the first gay and ecological movements. The rhetoric of that cycle of struggles tended to focus more on freedom and liberation rather than justice or equality. This was natural for a era defined by attempts to throw off colonial dictatorship in the global south, dismantle totalitarianism in the Marxist-Leninist regions, and escape from the smothering bureaucracy of the post-war welfare state in the global north.

It’s worth pointing out that the rhetoric of “justice” has often been used by the authoritarian left to rationalise restrictions on freedom. And given that social anarchists want to create a world defined by freedom – at the personal and social levels – should we be cautious at this generation’s emphasis on social justice over social liberation?

Not quite.

There’s always a dialectical relationship between the concepts of freedom and justice.

In places/times where justice (or “order”) is the prized political value, freedom becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around.

In places/times where freedom (or “individualism”) is the prized political value, justice becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around.

Because neoliberal societies make pretences to support freedom and the individual – in the form of rugged individualism – it’s not surprising that the liberatory social forces of today (such as Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, and intersectional class politics) focus more on social justice; perhaps viewing “freedom” as an ideological spook used to justify the domination of the disempowered by the powerful.

It’s an understandable reaction to a society that venerates freedom as an ideal, but doesn’t deliver on anything resembling collective well-being for the majority of the population.

Though it might be a good idea for the future to amp up the focus on freedom once again, to emphasise that the “liberty” capitalism/neoliberal culture offers is a false liberty; and that real freedom is only possible through conditions of non-hierarchical equality.

As social anarchists claim, the unity of freedom, equality, and solidarity is the only basis for both free self-development of the individual, and for complementarity of the diverse forces in society.

The empowerment of the marginalised – women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, queer folks, the disabled, the working classes – means a net increase in social freedom, so as long as justice is pursued in a liberationist (as opposed to statist/protectionist) manner.

The current wave of liberatory movements and the counter-culture of social justice among the young (in colleges and online for example) is a great place to begin creating a new liberated consciousness and commons-based infrastructure.

Though it needs to be modified with an increased emphasis on class struggle – as in, moves to acquire control of the means of production, distribution, and investment in the economy – creating direct democracy in communities, individual autonomy, and social freedom as well as social justice.

Far from having to choose between freedom and justice, what we need is a dialectical synthesis of the two. Start with the drive towards social justice that exists now, and push it in a more freedom-oriented direction.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Eoin O'Connor’s story.