Liberty and Liberation

By Scruton, Roger | The American Spectator, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview
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Liberty and Liberation


Scruton, Roger, The American Spectator


The first doesn't stand a chance under a regime of the latter.

WRITING IN THIS ISSUE, Christina Sommers draws our attention to the way in which women's liberty enters into conflict with women's "liberation." She quotes the telling remarks of Simone de Beauvoir, sainted leader of the feminist movement, who wished to deny women their fundamental freedom-the freedom to stay at home. Women's liberation in our day has, it seems, advocated the liberty of women to be themselves, but not to be women. The "self that is hidden in every woman, and which the feminists wish to free from its prison, turns out to be a man.

If we look back over the history of the radical movements that have shaped modern political thinking and teaching, we find that the advocates of liberation have almost invariably ended by promoting the oppression of those whom they promised to liberate. It began at the French Revolution, so naively praised by Mary Wollstonecraft for its empty promise of liberty and equality and for its unthinking assumption that these two goals could be easily combined. Within two years of seizing power on behalf of the people, the Revolutionaries had stuffed the jails of France with half a million of those very people. The Revolutionary Tribunals, established to promote the cause of liberty and "the rights of man," allowed to the accused no right of defense and appointed the prosecutor as both judge and jury. The people of La Vendée-who had begged in vain for their ancient liberty to worship God as they chose-became the target of the first systematic genocide in modern history, in which 800,000 people perished. And France had declared war on just about all its neighbors.

The interesting thing is that radical thinkers and politicians took no lesson from these events. Burke, who had insightfully warned against what was bound to happen, became the target of Tom Paine's Rights of Man, in which the Revolution was defended in the same self-indulgent terms as it had announced itself. Paine even became a member of the Revolutionary Assemblée Nationale, only to be arrested and imprisoned by the Revolutionaries. His fate made no difference to his opinions, and the pity is that his head was not cut off with those opinions still inside it before they spread across the civilized world.

The socialist movement began in earnest in the mid-19th century with the same tendency. Workers were promised "liberation," while capitalism was portrayed as a system of oppression in which the few benefited at the expense of the many. All that was necessary to rid the world of injustice, according to the socialists, was for the oppressed to unite against their oppressors. As the Communist Manifesto famously expressed it, they had "nothing to lose but their chains." And yet, in every instance so far observed, the liberation of the workers from capitalism has been followed immediately by their imprisonment by the state. The wars of "liberation" from colonial "oppression" in Asia and Africa have had the same effect. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but it is nevertheless true that the people of Zimbabwe were free under British colonial jurisdiction in a way that they are not free today-and that the same is true of almost all those African peoples who had the good fortune to be part of the British Empire.

THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT EXHIBITS the same tendency. Advocates of "liberation" like Simone de Beauvoir are secretly seeking control-control of society, and also control of women as a part of it. They are not offended so much by the sight of the ordinary housewife at home with her children as by the thought that, if you grant women the choice, this is the life that so many of them would choose. They want women to be free to choose, but only so long as they choose the life-style of a Beauvoir. In the end it is not freedom that they are advocating, but a change in human nature. It is hardly surprising, therefore, if the Marxist idea of emancipation led in due course to Stalin's cult of the "new socialist man"-the man who would freely choose the life of slavery and privation fashioned in the Soviet Union.

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