Posted on 16 February 2021 in symposia

ISRF Symposium – Freedom: An Unruly History

In November 2020, former ISRF Fellow Annelien de Dijn discussed her book Freedom: An Unruly History with Manjeet Ramgotra and Mark Whitehead.


ISRF Academic Editor

Is the Western idea of freedom fundamentally anti-democratic?

An online ISRF event in November 2020 brought former ISRF Fellow Annelien de Dijn together with Dr Manjeet Ramgotra (SOAS and QMUL) and Professor Mark Whitehead (Aberystwyth University) to discuss Professor de Dijn’s important new book, Freedom: An Unruly History.

This edited symposium draws together the contributions of all three speakers, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video of the event is available here.

ANNELIEN DE DIJN: Is freedom the one good thing that we’ve got? That’s what George Michael asked himself in his hit song from 1990—and it’s also the central question I address in my book. The answer to that question, in my view, is both yes and no. And the reason why that is the case is that the meaning of freedom has changed dramatically over time. In a nutshell, my book shows how freedom was transformed from an emancipatory ideal that was used to challenge the rule of political and economic elites, into a slogan primarily mobilized to protect the interests of the privileged few.

A democratic conception of freedom

The bulk of my book is devoted to showing that, until the early 19th century, people in what we now think of as “the West” associated political freedom primarily with popular self-government. They had what I call a democratic conception of freedom: a free state was one in which the people ruled itself. Athenian democrats, Roman plebeians, early modern humanists, and American, Dutch, Polish and French Revolutionaries all believed that the key to preserving political freedom was staving off elite domination—hence freedom fighters aimed to introduce political institutions that enhanced popular control over government. 

In ancient Athens, for instance, most public officials were chosen by lot, and they were in office for only short periods of time. This meant that any male citizen, no matter how obscure their birth or how lowly their station in life, had an equal chance of attaining high office. In addition, Athenians received a stipend to attend the popular assembly where all the important political decisions were made. This way, even poor citizens were able to participate in the often day-long meetings, as they were compensated for their loss of income. These and similar measures ensured that political power remained in the hands of ordinary citizens. 

In ancient Rome, wealthy elites maintained a far tighter grip on the political system. But in the second century BCE, amid growing economic inequality, popular dissatisfaction with the status quo increased. Politicians like Tiberius Gracchus campaigned to democratise the system, for instance by introducing the secret ballot, which promised to lessen the influence of the wealthy over elections. These and similar reforms, the democrats argued over and over again, were necessary to preserve Roman liberty, as the ruling elite’s grip on power threatened to turn all citizens into slaves.

In modern times, the fight for freedom was revived by renaissance humanists, who idolised the ancients. They argued that Europeans were condemned to live as slaves unless they got rid of their kings and queens and reintroduced republican government. This movement culminated in the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century, which have been described, with good reason, as the ‘last act of the Renaissance’.

Of course, these self-proclaimed freedom fighters often ended up replacing old power structures with new hierarchies, notably of race and gender. Today, we remember the American and French revolutionaries because they introduced new and more broadly popular governments, thus heralding the age of democracy. Yet many of the revolutionaries who protested most loudly against the metaphorical slavery to which they were subjected by autocratic kings and arrogant elites, either owned slaves or were involved in the slave trade. 

At the same time, such hypocrisies were consistently challenged by marginalised groups, who were able to turn the revolutionaries’ own words against them. As the abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass put it: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? … You have already declared it.” 

The turn to modern freedom

In short, for centuries, freedom was used as a near-synonym for democracy. But in the course of the 19th and 20thcenturies, this democratic conception of freedom was gradually displaced by a new and very different way of thinking about libertyFreedom, many came to argue, was not a matter of who governed. Instead, what determined whether you were free or not was the extent to which you were governed. The smaller the government, the freer you were—regardless of who was in control. 

This new way of thinking was triggered by a conservative backlash against the rise of democracy. In the late 18th and 19thcenturies, the democratising movement booked increasing successes, as rule by traditional elites was replaced with more broadly popular governments in both Europe and North America. In the longer run, the promise of democracy also came to be extended to hitherto marginalised groups, such as women and Black men. 

But the victories of these democratising movements also created a powerful counterreaction—a reaction that would lead to a major shift in thinking about freedom. Democracy, conservatives argued again and again, would not bring freedom for all. After all, even in the most democratic states, power was never exercised by common consent. Rather, in a democracy, the majority of the community ruled over everyone else. If you really cared about freedom, conservatives continued to argue, extending popular control over government was therefore superfluous and even counterproductive—it would lead to majority tyranny. Hence, the only way to preserve freedom was by limiting the sphere of government as much as possible, and by empowering counter-majoritarian institutions, such as an independent judiciary, to protect individuals against majoritarian overreach.

When they talked about the tyranny of the majority, it is important to note, conservatives were not primarily thinking about the oppression of vulnerable minorities such as religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the majoritarian tyranny they feared above all was that of the poor over the rich; they dreaded democracy’s redistributive potential. Writing in the wake of 1848—when revolutionaries attempted to introduce manhood suffrage in continental Europe—the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay spoke for many conservatives when he warned that democracy was incompatible with liberty, as “the poor would plunder the rich”. Democracy, he pontificated, must “destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.” 

Similarly, the counter-majoritarian institutions conservatives put so much stock in were primarily meant to protect property rights against popular politics. William Howard Taft, for instance, the Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930, spoke for many of his colleagues when he explained that it was up to the federal judiciary, the “bulwark of the liberty of the individual,” to protect individuals against “the aggression of a majority of the electorate”—notably by zealously defending their property rights.

Freedom and the Cold War

Throughout the 19th century, this conservative, antidemocratic conception of freedom continued to be contested by radical democrats and socialists alike. Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst profoundly disagreed with Taft’s view that the best way to protect liberty was to limit the sphere of government as much as possible. At the same time, socialist politicians such as Jean Jaurès claimed that they, and not conservative liberals, were the party of freedom, since socialism’s goal was “to organize the sovereignty of all in both the economic and political spheres.” 

Only after 1945 did the conservative concept of freedom prevail over the older, democratic conception of freedom. In the context of Cold War rivalry between the “free West” and the Soviet Union, distrust of state power grew—even democratic state power. In 1958, liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in a one-sided reading of the history of European political thought, stated that “Western” freedom was a purely “negative” concept. Every law, Berlin stated bluntly, had to be seen as an encroachment on freedom.

In short, the idea that freedom depends on the limitation of state power was originally invented by 19th-century conservatives to defend elite interests against the rise of democracy, but it remained fiercely contested throughout that century as well as during the first half of the 20th century. It was only in the midst of the Cold War that this conception of freedom was reconceived as the “Western” notion of freedom.


To reiterate, then, the main argument put forward in my book is that freedom was transformed from an emancipatory ideal into a slogan primarily mobilised to protect the interests of the privileged few.

By making such claims, my book aims to contribute to current political debate as well as to scholarship on the history of political thought. Freedom is not just a lofty ideal; it’s also a powerful political weapon, a weapon that can be wielded to destroy political opponents and block legislative change. One of the reasons why freedom has that power is because of widespread assumptions about who we are and where we come from. In the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe as well, people still tend to be raised on triumphalist narratives about the age-old Western tradition of freedom. One of the major goals of my book is to challenge such narratives—and the politics they underpin—by showing that there is far less continuity in our way of thinking about freedom than there might seem to be at first sight.

MARK WHITEHEAD: I would like to commence this review with a note of gratitude. I would like to thank Annelien for Freedom: An Unruly History. I know, from personal experience, how challenging it is to write a bad book, and this a very good book. Its sweeping historical narrative offers compelling stories, philosophical nuance, and precise historical analysis in equal measure. I remain genuinely surprised that a volume such as this works so well. Spanning 2,000 of years of history, it somehow manages to combine a sophisticated account of a history of ideas alongside a narrative that is able to reveal the impact of these idea on human experience. 

I commenced reading this book in October 2020. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time to be engaging in the shifting sands, and competing discourses, associated with that most contested of concepts—freedom! And so, I was turning the pages of this volume while confined to my home and local area as part of Wales’s Covid-19 Autumn Circuit Breaker lockdown. My reading was also interspersed with the build-up to the US Congressional and Presidential Elections and the UK’s pending exit from the European Union. I cannot remember a period of time in my life when how we interpret and pursue freedom has been so keenly debated and contested. In addition to providing a history of my present, the volume also spoke to deeper philosophical questions I have been struggling with. These questions revolve around how so many different people and groups can be committed to the cause of freedom, and yet conceive of it in such radically different ways. It seems to me that if there is one thing that unites contemporary liberal democracies it is an unwavering commitment (across the majority of political parties) to the principles of freedom. And yet, within those very same democracies are those who storm the Capitol building in Washington DC in order to overturn the result of an election (all in the name of freedom). In the UK there are those who have supported Brexit in order to “liberate” the UK from the European Union and at one and the same time reduce their freedom, and the freedom of fellow citizens, to move and travel within the EU. 

The key contribution of this volume is to reveal that these contradictions of freedom are nothing new. They are indeed part of much longer historical tensions between two distinct visions of freedom: (1) the right of citizens to participate in the democratic process; and (2) the right of citizens to express their personal liberty, unencumbered by the institutions of politics. These tensions have generated a particular historical cycle, where in order to protect one set of personal freedoms citizens have undermined the very institutions that are central to the protection of democratic (and often personal) freedom. This volume thus reveals that the assault on the Capitol building in Washington DC is only the latest manifestation of a much longer unruly history of freedom. Ironically, within this history some of the gravest threats to democratic freedom have come from competing concepts of freedom itself.

In this brief review, I want to do two things: (1) reflect on what I think the key provocations of the volume are; and (2) raise some of my own provocations regarding the volume. These reflections stem from my own work as a geographer, but also as someone who is interested in recent government deployments of psychological power, and the particular implications this has for questions of freedom.

Key provocations of the volume

As I read the great span of history covered in this book, I noticed a recurring triple dialectic. This triple dialectic derives from three understandings of freedom: freedom as moral autonomy (the human capacity for independently impelled intentional action); democratic participation (the ability to participate in the political process, through debate and the electoral process); and civic liberty (the unencumbered ability of citizens to do what they want, when they want to). While these ideas of freedom are, of course, not mutually exclusive, this great conceptual span made me speculate that perhaps freedom itself is a category mistake: covering too many potentially contradictory processes to be a useful way of organising related thought and philosophy. However, perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are when we can observe the virtuous alignment between these different modalities of freedom. Whether it be in 5th-century BCE Greece, the Roman Republic, the writings of Locke and Mill, or even Switzerland, there are clear moments in time when institutional arrangements and philosophical developments enable the harmonious coexistence of different forms of freedom. 

One of the lessons we can learn from the unruly history of freedom is that we can ‘eat our freedom cake and have it too’. There have been moments in time where civil liberties have been enhanced not constrained by democratic government, and democracy itself has been enhanced by the liberties enjoyed by its subjects. While these alignments are never perfect, and inevitably involve compromise, they do indicate that the commitment to different principles of freedom can peacefully coexist, and indeed be mutual necessities. So, for me at least, the main insight of this volume is that the interaction between different modalities of freedom is not a zero-sum game—we can enjoy our liberty and maintain democratic institutions of government. But this optimism must be tempered by another key insight of the volume: the history of freedom is consistently marked by the arbitrary mobilisation of certain visions of freedom over others. There is a common motivation behind these mobilisations of freedom, namely the preservation of elite minority power over the growing masses. Those who are most free (in all senses of the word) thus get to determine what freedom itself is.

Personal provocations

I raise four provocations which derive from the pages of Freedom: An Unruly History. The first is the relationship between economic and political freedom. The political is often seen as the formal realm of freedom. Indeed, this volume primarily focuses on questions of political freedom. And yet, it tends to be in the economic realm where I feel my personal freedom is most impinged upon. My question then is, can the history of freedom, as a lived experience at least, be told only through the political realm? Although economic freedom is clearly shaped by political systems, does it not require its own history? To be fair, this volume does touch on economic issues, and there is only so much one volume can be reasonably expected to cover. Furthermore, my concern with economic freedom may stem from my own position as a privileged academic who enjoys political freedoms but is subject to the peculiar demands of the emerging knowledge economy. Yet, in a world so shaped by neoliberalism, understanding how economic and political systems of freedom are interrelated has, arguably, never been more important. 

As I read this volume, I was consistently struck by how myths and storytelling are so important to understandings of freedom. The Romans would recount heroic stories of the Greeks in their defence of freedom, while the libertarian right in the US consistently refers back to certain Jeffersonian ideals. It is interesting how the myths of freedom on the political right appear, at present at least, to be more powerful and effective than those mobilised on the left. In the US for example freedom is defined by the right as liberty, while the left’s defence of positive forms of freedom, through the institutions of the state, is depicted as socialism. This led me to ponder what popular myths and stories can be used to extol the virtues of the democratic freedoms of good government? I do not have answers to this question, but it seems like an important one to ask.

My third provocation relates to my own work on the contemporary governmental exercise of psychological and behavioural insights. Many states are now trying to exercise social influence through soft paternalist strategies (social marketing, nudges etc.) rather than mandates. While effective in certain policy areas (such as pension savings), many are concerned that these policies reflect a manipulative assault on the moral autonomy of individuals and a bypassing of the proper policy process. As I progressed through this volume, I was struck by how these behavioural policies reflect a contemporary manifestation of the triple dialectic of freedom. Such policies simultaneously demonstrate a desire to be more interventionist (on questions of public health and the environment) by democratic governments, and through the soft forms of interventions they use also appease libertarian concerns. In some ways these policies could be seen as an attempt to recreate a virtuous historic alignment of democratic freedom and civil liberty. In reality, I fear that in the pursuit of such a compromise we may actually be ending up with the worst of all worlds, wherein subconscious nudging works against moral autonomy and transparent democratic processes, while generating renewed libertarian concerns over the state’s deeper intervention into the details of our everyday lives. Not all alignments of the principles of freedom may necessarily be desirable then!My final provocation is perhaps my bleakest. The story of the unruly history of freedom did make me look at the neoliberal world I inhabit in new ways. It seems to me (following Foucault) that in the neoliberal world our civil liberties are conditional on systems of self-care, anxiety, and neurotic citizenship which is to be expected in the absence of a caring demos. At one and the same time, the unregulated actions of ever more powerful corporations over democratic institutions make notions of participation seem futile. In such situations, it is perhaps no surprise that freedom should once again have to compete with the spectre of authoritarian power.


I noticed in the acknowledgement (at the back of the book), that this volume came to life when Annelien saw a placard in 2009 showing Barack Obama with a Hitler moustache. I had a similar ‘freedom moment’ in 2008 when I saw John McCain addressing what looked to be a Harley-Davidson Rally. As the crowd revved their engines McCain observed, “That is the sound of freedom!” (at least that is my memory). And there it was, the paradox of freedom. What could better represent freedom than the personal liberty of movement afforded by the motorbike, the open road, and rebellious self-determination? And yet, on hearing these words all I could think about was air pollution, climate change, the loss of liberty for others, and the importance of collective action to protect us from causing harm to our neighbours near and far. William Ophuls has argued that our current notions of liberty are the product of an age of abundance, which may be coming to a close. The future seems like it will inevitably be more constrained. This volume provides the historical basis for recognising that it need not be less free.

MANJEET RAMGOTRA: Freedom: An Unruly History is beautifully written and very meticulously researched and detailed. It takes readers through a broad conceptual history that is told not only through the writings of key thinkers but also through objects, art, political action, and events, inviting us to think more widely about the meaning, articulation, and practice of freedom. The symbolic cap of liberty signifying initially the liberation of slaves in Rome and later political liberty is a case in point; as are the Spartan envoys to Persia who contrasted the liberty to be self-governing to that of the despotic rule of the Persian prince. This book uncovers how an important strand of thinking about the political liberty ‘to rule oneself and answer to no one’ emerges at certain moments in time through radical democratic struggles but is never quite actualised, as it is eclipsed by more conservative, aristocratic, and elitist conceptions of freedom that promoted the security to live without the interference of governing institutions.[1]

Annelien argues that the notion of individual rights and freedoms has suppressed the radical democratic political liberty to have an active role in self-government. Her book details how we got to this point. The argument that there are two notions of freedom, a more active and participatory one and a more passive one that emphasises limits to state interference, runs throughout the history of western political thought and activism. This history been variously presented by Benjamin Constant, Isaiah Berlin, John Pocock, and Quentin Skinner. Constant contrasts ancient and modern freedom, which Berlin reads in terms of positive and negative liberty, whereas Pocock and Skinner lament the loss of the classical and neo-roman republican tradition that promotes the active participation in ruling in a free state. They criticise modern conceptions of individual (negative) freedom for ‘privatising’ freedom and keeping the people outside of the realm of public deliberation and politics.

I read Annelien’s book as part of this broader school of republican thought that sees the language of liberalism, contract, and natural rights as eclipsing the participatory language of republican liberty. At the same time, it is not reducible to this; Annelien’s story is somewhat different as she includes different actors. A large part of her book examines the Atlantic Revolutions and asks why the promises of full egalitarian liberty were not realised after the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. This leads her to study counter-revolutionary thinking that considered democratic rule tyrannical and in need of moderation. Thus she contends that the conception of freedom from state interference was pushed as a more important and substantive freedom than the liberty to participate in legislative processes. Giving the people legislative power was precarious as they could be despotic or totalitarian in their rule; therefore, legislative power was shared between two chambers, while the independent judiciary was granted the authority to scrutinise legislation. These measures were meant to temper the tyranny of the majority. In other words, the radical egalitarian and democratic elements of the ‘cult of freedom’ were made subject to elite control through these mechanisms.

Overall, I agree with the argument that the negative conception of freedom from state interference is bereft of the positive element to share in controlling public affairs; however, I do not think that these two types of liberty are necessarily antithetical nor that one wins out over another. The notion of being free from arbitrary state power is important. In Rome, the Tribunes of the people were established to stop magistrates from arbitrarily punishing common people, which led to the development of due process. In our time, Black Lives Matter is a movement about protecting Black lives from the arbitrary abuse of police power. The right to be protected from such interference in one’s home, or from being stopped and searched due to the colour of one’s skin, is very important. We need only look to the abuse of power that cost the lives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to understand this. Moreover, the enjoyment of this freedom does not necessarily mean that one should forego the liberty to participate in ruling. One needs both. 

There is a long tradition of thinking that incorporates, on an unequal basis, these two types of freedom in a mixed republican constitution. The people are granted the freedom to live in security from arbitrary power and the landed nobility enjoy the authority to rule and make laws that have jurisdiction over their private property. That is to say that republics included both types of freedom but distributed these unequally across social classes. It was feared that the power of the people would become despotic; but at the same time, the establishment of wealthy propertied social classes did not want to give up their authority and hence they limited the popular voice. 

By the same token, the 18th-century revolutionary thrust for radical democracy, which pushed the boundaries to include more people in political processes, was itself tempered by a more conservative strain of thought that incorporated a only small portion of the people—and that portion excluded women, people of colour, the working classes, and slaves. 

What is refreshing about Annelien’s book is that she includes some of these marginal voices to illustrate the re-emergence of the ‘cult of freedom’. Notably in her discussion of Atlantic Revolutions, she pays attention to the Haitian Revolution of Black slaves against their white European masters. She also looks at women in the French Revolution, notably Olympe de Gouges, who composed a Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens in 1791 and Black rights activists such as Frederick Douglass. However, I want to push you a bit more on this, as I think these are the voices that challenge both the conservative and democratic positionalities of the men who usually have both space and a voice in politics and the production of knowledge. 

It would be great to see deeper elaboration of the marginalised voices that contest and expand the boundaries of political participation and how we organise difference and inclusion in our political structures and spaces. These sources of knowledge grapple with these issues from the perspective and experience of the oppressed. Not only do they challenge mainstream ways of thinking through questions of freedom and political institutions, but they also present normative ideas on how to create structures that would make good the liberty to participate on a more meaningful level in ruling institutions and laws, rather than simply conforming to existing structures, which is where inequality gets embedded structurally and needs shaking up. 

Furthermore, these voices are really important in this discussion of what radical liberty means, especially when we discuss it as being the opposite to slavery and not being subject to the arbitrary rule or will of another. In studies of freedom, I think it is important to examine in depth the activists and theorists who write about their experiences of oppression and their conceptualisations of freedom. This likewise cuts across to anticolonial resistance of the early 20thcentury.[2]

You do note that your study is about Western understandings; however, I do not think that these can be separated from the wider contexts in which many of these ideas developed. Even classical conceptions of the free state were juxtaposed to the idea of Persian despotism, and modern languages of liberty and natural rights emerged in moments of European colonial expansion and empire. But it is also the case that many anti-colonial, anti-racist, and feminist thinkers are situated in the West, yet are not commonly seen as integral to Western thinking. Again, it is great that you start to do this in your book, yet I think it could be further developed—perhaps in volume 2!

Finally, I want to come back to Benjamin Constant’s dichotomy, which I think is a story of modernity, liberalism, and individual liberty where the ancient is not simply a reference to the classical world but also to the traditional and so-called ‘backward’ colonised peoples. There is a justification at work here that the civilised modern Europeans who are free can dominate over the so-called ‘uncivilised’/developing, traditional, and often ‘despotic’ societies of Asia, Africa, and the Americas for their own benefit, so that they can be educated in modernity to learn to be self-ruling, independent through property ownership, and free. 

This binary also presents a distinct understanding of time: to be modern is to be part of a contemporaneous world replete with the knowledge, technology, and modes of being from that world. To be ancient is to belong not only to another time frame but rather to another world that is not necessarily on par with recent knowledges and technologies. So, I think this binary of ancient and modern freedom not only distinguishes between putative despotic tendencies of radical revolutionary democratic liberty and conservative counter-revolutionary antidemocratic freedom, but also it serves to differentiate colonised from Western societies; as well as anti-colonialist nationalist movements from western notions of liberal democracy and freedom. I have taken the liberty to extend your study to another realm and want to conclude by saying that your book has given me lots of food for thought!

ANNELIEN DE DIJN: Let me start by thanking both Mark and Manjeet for their truly excellent reflections. I couldn’t have wished for more generous or discerning readers. I’m going to try to answer your questions as briefly as possible, although unfortunately that means that I won’t be able to do them justice entirely. 

In response to Mark’s questions, I wanted to pick up on your point about the relationship between economic and political freedom. One of the stories that I am trying to tell in my book is how much of this tradition of democratic freedom is really focused on establishing freedom in the political realm. But what I also tried to show is that towards the middle of the 19th century—and I’m thinking here of the emerging socialist movement, for instance, and later in the late 19thcentury American populism—some movements start arguing that establishing freedom in the political sphere isn’t enough. If we want to be truly free, we need to do something else, we need to extend popular control, not just over the political sphere, but also over the economic sphere. 

I think there’s a couple of reasons why that happens fairly late in this history. One reason is that, for most of human history, those who were in a position to leave us records of their thoughts on freedom would be people with a certain amount of economic independence. This is why even though it may feel to us that our immediate economic environment is more of an infringement of our liberties than the oftentimes more distant political sphere, that was different for many of these earlier thinkers. 

But another thing that happens in the 19th century is obviously that the Industrial Revolution wreaks havoc and dramatically changes the nature of work. This transition from agrarian societies to industrial societies means, as historians like E.P. Thompson have shown, not just that people start doing different kinds of work, but also that their work becomes much more highly regimented. I think that’s one of the reasons why this debate emerges about how freedom isn’t just something that simply happens in the political sphere, but that the ideal of freedom also requires us to extend popular control over the economic sphere. 

Let me turn to your questions and comments now, Manjeet. Thanks so much, I really learned a lot from them. One of the problems I ran into in my research is that I try to describe this tradition of what I call ‘democratic freedom,’ which I tried to trace back all the way to Ancient Greece. But when you study this, what you see is that, throughout history, individuals who call themselves freedom fighters, and who claim that they’re trying to bring freedom for all, whereas in reality, to us, it doesn’t seem like they’re actually bringing freedom for all. What is striking is that they end up continuing to exclude so many people from power and indeed from what they themselves describe as freedom. 

In telling this history I do try to show that this form of hypocrisy is continually being contested by marginalised voices, but I agree with you that perhaps even more work could have been done in the book to highlight that aspect of the story of freedom. At the same time, I was also trying to weave another set of marginalised voices back into the narrative, and in particular the voices of those who were fighting for economic freedom, notably socialists and other progressive movements. This is also a tradition of freedom fighters that has been unfairly neglected, and I suppose the task is to weave both of these traditions back into the story of freedom: women and people of colour and these people fighting for economic freedom. I made an effort to do those things at the same time but may not have done them enough justice.

With regard to the anticolonial movement and the importance of its contribution to the story of freedom: I completely agree with you that just saying, “well, that’s not part of the Western tradition” is an unfair cop-out, because that would really be a strangely narrow definition of what the Western tradition is all about. So, in all honesty, I don’t have a good answer to give to you, except that after working on this book for 10 years, I felt that perhaps this was a story to be told by somebody else, or perhaps by myself in another book. 

About the Contributors

ISRF Annelien de Dijn

Annelien de Dijn is a Professor of Modern Political History at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States from 1700 to the present. She is the author of Freedom: An Unruly History (Harvard University Press, 2020) and of French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society (Cambridge University Press, 2008, paperback edition October 2011).

Manjeet Ramgotra ISRF

Manjeet Ramgotra is a lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University London and a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. She wrote a PhD in political theory on the conservative roots of republicanism in the history of western political thought. More recently, her research has developed to examine republicanism in the twentieth-century post-colonial moment, notably in the founding of the Indian republic.

ISRF Mark Whitehead

Mark Whitehead is a Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth University whose research interests span urban studies, sustainability, and the impacts of the psychological sciences on public policy. In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Mark was involved in developing the first comprehensive account of the rise of psychological forms of government in the UK state. This project resulted in the publication of the book Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State (Edward Elgar, 2013).


[1] Annelien de Dijn, Freedom: An Unruly History (Cambridge, MA 2020: Harvard University Press), 14.

[2] In some of my research, I ask why Pocock and Skinner, in their revival of a neglected republican tradition, did not examine the ideas of self-rule and independence in movements of decolonisation that took place in their time. See Manjeet Ramgotra, ‘Postcolonial Republicanism and the Revival of a Paradigm,’ The Good Society 26, no. (2017).; 35–54,