Outlining freedom in politics

We often hear the word ‘freedom’ uttered in speeches given by politicians and lobby groups whose aim is to convince people, that through the support of certain political decisions or actions, citizens of a country would be able to achieve a state of enhanced freedom. However this state of ‘enhanced freedom’ is very rarely described directly and unfortunately, it rarely results in the promised picture painted beforehand.

Unsurprisingly even though allusions to freedom in politics are common, the question of freedom is rarely discussed or analysed properly owing to the fact that the nature of freedom in politics is a complicated one. The reason for this is that the concept of freedom, when used on the political stage, does not always, and in fact has never, retained a well-defined meaning. In fact if one had to look up the meaning of the word ‘freedom’, one sees at once that it is a word which has multiple definitions, of which the most important in this context is the following (see references):


‘The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved’

In other words, one can take freedom to mean freedom from any conceivable form of restriction or limitation on one’s actions.  This definition is the result of a series of socio-political upheavals and changes found within mankind’s history in the field of economics and politics.

As a result, it is not surprising that way we define this term finds its roots in revolutionary thought. Revolutions, in the words of the notable political theorist Hannah Arendt, ‘put the question of political freedom in its truest and most radical form’ (see reference). Freedoms such as the freedom to participate in public life as well as freedom of action, and all other freedoms including political and civil liberties, emerged as central concepts on the political scene during the late 18th and the 19th century.

The approach revolutionaries in this period utilised to form their own visions of freedom, relied upon the notion that for one to determine what freedom is, one must first identify and define what the conditions for slavery (the antithesis of freedom) are. Subsequently this need for freedom translated itself into a collective call for power which was then used to break free from what the revolutionaries saw to be the main sources of slavery, be they physical, economic or otherwise.

However what constitutes a ‘lack of freedom’ is heavily dependent on and conditioned by the socio-political and socio-economic conditions found in a particular age and society. For instance, whilst French revolutionaries in 1789 defined their freedom as liberty from feudalistic tyranny, Karl Marx defined freedom as: freedom from structures of exploitation and capitalistic modes of production. This example illustrates that although freedom in politics has a context-dependant meaning, the context only affects the conditions and sources of slavery rather than the overall concept of freedom.


Freedom is also defined to be:

 ‘The absence of subjection to foreign domination’. (See references)

This definition shows freedom to be intimately linked with national identity and therefore nationalism. Once again this definition finds its origins in revolutionary thought with the ideas of Rousseau (1712–1778) and of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) which paved the way for the romantic nationalist movements of the 19th century.

Romantic nationalism (also known as identity nationalism) is:The form of nationalism in which the state derives its political legitimacy as an organic consequence of the unity of those it governs’. (See references)

The turn towards the formation of national identity and national ‘unity’ grew out of the crisis of identity, which was brought about by changes in the start of the modern era. This included the loss of legitimacy by religious authorities as well as the erosion of the old traditional feudal and patriarchal bonds that characterised pre-modern Western society. The weakening of these social dimensions led to the loss of security, with significant impact on the individual’s ability to find a community with which he or she could identify in order to find a way out of this crisis. This search for a collective spirit led to the creation of the nation – a term which was itself already part of the vocabulary of the educated, but which now acquired a popularly desirable connotation and emotional charge.

Not only was this movement primarily responsible for the creation of the Western values of freedom, liberty and the nation, but it also became a movement allied to the artistic works of the romantics who, through a newly created literary language, fuelled romantic arts, poetry, and drama. These joined forces with music, architecture, and history writing in the struggle for nationhood. Romantic nationalism formed a key strand in the philosophy of Hegel (1770–1831), who argued that there was a “spirit of the age” or zeitgeist that inhabited a particular people at a particular time, and that, when that people became the active determiner of history, it was simply because their cultural and political moment had come.

As an idea, if not a specific movement, it is present as an assumption in debates over nationality and nationhood up to this day, with many of the world’s nations created from principles drawn from romantic nationalism as their source of legitimacy.


Brexit, for example, is in itself still very much a question of national identity and sovereignty, with the Prime Minister emphasizing the “control over our borders”, a quote which directly speaks to the nationalist sentiments of the people who voted Leave, sentiments which are founded upon those set by nationalist romanticism. Other relevant examples include Ukraine and Catalonia. Countries which find the roots of their conflicts in the histories of 19th century imperialism. This period saw small nations try to get independence from larger empires (Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, England etc.).

The final aspect to be discussed is then the relationship between liberty and freedom. Although both refer to the quality or state of being free, oftentimes being used interchangeably, liberty can be distinguished from freedom as it means to be free to do something unlike freedom which in this case means to be free from something.

The concept of liberty can be traced back to the French revolutionary idea of liberté, an idea which adhered to the anti-monarchical environment present at the time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s development of the social contract (an agreement which binds people into a community existing for mutual preservation), ensured that the fight for liberty also became the primary cause of equality. Once liberty was identified negatively as independence from arbitrary rule, it only made sense to seek equality, making sure that a balance of power is maintained.

However it still remains difficult to see and say where the desire for liberation, to be free from oppression, ends, and where the desire for freedom, to live a political life, begins. Take for instance the case of people’s fight against colonial rule. Whilst the prevailing social and political contexts point towards freedom as being freedom from occupier’s rule, and freedom from hunger, disease, debt etc., it could also be defined in terms of power. That is, power to implement one’s own rule, in terms of one’s own culture, language, identity and customs. This fight, influenced by nationalist romanticism created a link between political freedom and national, personal, and social identity.  All factors which influence and affect the struggle for self-rule and self-determination through the acquisition of liberty.


Understanding the history behind the meaning of concepts such as freedom on a political level, allows us to make better sense of and contextualise current situations. Furthermore it gives us a better insight into the motives behind certain political decisions thereby allowing us to judge situations better and steer clear of over-generalisations.  Although today the fight for freedom is mostly centred around the fight for equality, on a more fundamental level, it is still a fight against abuse and discrimination.


Source 1 and 3: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/freedom

Source 2: https://lithub.com/never-before-published-hannah-arendt-on-what-freedom-and-revolution-really-mean/

Source 4: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_nationalism




Written by: Veronika Mercieca


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