Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Financial, Acronyms, Idioms, Wikipedia.


, in political science
liberty, term used to describe various types of individual freedom, such as religious liberty, political liberty, freedom of speech, right of self-defense, and others. It is also used as a general term for the sum of specific liberties. Fundamental perhaps is personal liberty, the freedom of a person to come and go as he or she pleases without unwarranted restraint.

Historical Perspective

Liberty has a history that shows that it varies with time and place. In England prior to the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) a person could be seized and kept in prison indefinitely without trial or hearing. The common-law prohibition of conspiracy as dangerous to domestic peace and order was invoked far into the 19th cent. to limit the right of association in labor unions. Specifically political liberties, such as the general right to vote and to hold public office, were practically unknown before the 19th cent., when they were achieved by the liberal movement in England. The same is true of such civil liberties as freedom of speech and of the press. Freedom of conscience, the right of private judgment in religious matters, and the right to worship with groups of one's own choosing were nonexistent prior to the Protestant Reformation and still limited in most places for a long time afterward.

The Philosophical Concept of Liberty

Liberty has found philosophical expression in individualism and anarchism (an extreme form of individualism) and in nationalism. Such philosophers as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau popularized the conception of the individual as having certain natural rights that could not be denied or taken away by society or by any external authority, rights that Thomas Jefferson spoke of in the Declaration of Independence as “unalienable” and that were embodied in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. Rousseau especially thought of them as the rights possessed by people living in a “state of nature” and not surrendered, only modified, in the social contract by which they agreed to live together in society.

The Acquisition of Liberty

Political scientists point out that even in a state of nature people are subject to the law of nature and that the rights enjoyed by them in society are historically acquired and not natural except in a strictly social sense. Liberties are acquired through the joining of like-minded individuals to gain special privileges for themselves. Thus, through Magna Carta the English barons in 1215 wrested from King John certain freedoms that in time they had to share with the rest of the people.

The history of liberty in the later Middle Ages is that of numerous corporate groups, such as guilds of artisans and merchants, winning immunity from external control. By agreements with their feudal overlords these groups obtained release from certain feudal dues and bonds, gaining a limited freedom to carry on trade and manufacture, which formed the nucleus of the liberties extended to the bourgeoisie in the 19th cent. Some ethnic minorities, as in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, were able by a show of strength to gain legal status for their language and culture as well as assurance of some political rights. Freedom to follow the trade or profession of one's inclination, as of women to practice medicine, denied in most societies, was gained only in recent times. The feminist movement in the 19th and 20th cent. is a good example of the attempt to gain such rights.

The acquired nature of rights—their dependence on conditions of time and place—also makes them peculiarly subject to danger of loss. Liberties have had to be defended against encroachment, and sometimes populations have had their liberties curtailed. In times of national danger some rights may be suspended, as was the right of habeas corpus by President Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War, and the struggle for rights not yet acquired may be discontinued.

The freedom for self-expression, as distinguished from the freedom from external restraint, has become increasingly important to the notion of liberty. Since medieval times liberty has been increased by the gradual but advancing removal of restraints once imposed by church and state, by custom and law; in the 20th cent. attention was turned to the creation of certain conditions regarded as necessary if individuals are to develop their fullest potential. The idea of equality, emphasized by the philosophers of the French Revolution, came to be closely associated with the idea of liberty in democratic societies—not equality based on a supposed equality of ability but equality of opportunity. Inequality, especially economic inequality, was held to be as great an obstacle to individual development as any form of external restraint. Therefore it was proposed that the state should seek to equalize as far as possible the conditions in such areas as education, health, and housing, thereby establishing economic and social security, and freedom from want and fear, so that every individual might have equal opportunity for self-realization.

The right of national groups to be independent and sovereign has also come to be regarded as a principle of liberty. Since 1945, more than 50 former colonial areas have become independent states (see imperialism). The UN Commission on Human Rights has sought to promote the extension of political and cultural liberty throughout the world through treaties and covenants, the most important of which has been the Declaration of Human Rights.


See J. S. Mill, On Liberty (1859, repr. 1972); H. Butterfield, Liberty in the Modern World (1952); S. Hook, Political Power and Personal Freedom (1959, repr. 1962); M. R. Konvitz, ed., Aspects of Liberty (1958, repr. 1965) and Expanding Liberties (1967); J. M. Swomley, Liberation Ethics (1972); J. David and R. B. McKay, ed., The Blessings of Liberty (1989); E. Foner, The Story of American Freedom (1998).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


See International Space Station.
Collins Dictionary of Astronomy © Market House Books Ltd, 2006
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the human capacity to act in accordance with aims and interests, relying on a knowledge of objective necessity.

In the history of social thought, the problem of freedom was traditionally reduced to the question of whether people have free will—in other words, whether their intentions and actions are governed by external circumstances. The materialist conception of history rejects the idealist view of individual freedom as individual consciousness independent of objective circumstances. Marxism also opposes the metaphysical belief that there is an antithesis between freedom and necessity—a view that was widely held by philosophers and natural scientists of the 17th through 19th centuries, including T. Hobbes, P. H. Holbach, J. O. de La Mettrier, P. S. de Laplace, and E. Dühring. The Marxist conception of freedom in dialectical interaction with necessity is opposed to voluntarism, which asserts the arbitrary willfulness of human actions, and to fatalism, which regards actions as predetermined. Unlike the idealists, including Hegel and the existentialists, who limit the problem of freedom to the realm of consciousness, Marxism argues that without the possibility of realization, the consciousness of freedom is merely an illusion.

In their everyday activity people encounter not an abstract necessity but its concrete, historical embodiment in existing social and economic relations that determine the range of people’s interests, as well as in the material means for achieving desired goals. People are not free to choose the objective conditions in which they function, but they do possess a certain freedom in their choice of goals, since at any given moment there are usually several real possibilities of varying feasibility. Even when there is no alternative, people are in a position to forestall undesirable developments or hasten desirable ones. In addition, they are more or less free in their choice of the means for attaining a particular end. Thus, freedom is not absolute but relative, and it is made real through the choice of a definite plan of action. The degree of freedom increases as people grow more aware of their real possibilities, as they gain greater access to the means of attaining desired goals, and as their interests coincide more with the aspirations of many other people and especially with those of entire social classes, as well as with the objective trends of social progress.

Based on these considerations, Marxists define freedom as “the known necessity.” According to this point of view, the freedom of an individual, a group, a class, or an entire society does not consist “in an imaginary independence” from objective laws but in the ability to choose and to “make decisions with knowledge of the subject” (F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1966, p. 112). The individual’s historically relative but practically effective freedom to choose a line of action under various circumstances makes him morally and socially responsible for his actions. Moreover, “negative freedom,” or freedom from deprivation, exploitation, and social and national oppression is a condition for “positive freedom,” which is associated with creative work, self-determination, and the comprehensive development of the individual.

Freedom does not mean arbitrary choice. Man’s freedom in thought and action does not involve freedom from causality, and freedom is not negated by the causal determination of thoughts, interests, intentions, and actions, because these human capacities are not determined in identical ways. Regardless of the origin of their aims and intentions, people enjoy freedom to the extent that they have the real possibility of exercising a choice or preference that objectively corresponds to their interests and to the extent that external circumstances do not force them to act against personal interests and needs. Abstract freedom does not exist. Freedom is always concrete and relative. Depending on the objective circumstances and the specific situation, people may enjoy freedom or be totally deprived of it. They may have freedom in some spheres of activity but not in others. Moreover, the degree of freedom may vary greatly, from freedom in the choice of goals to freedom in the choice of means or to freedom only to adapt to reality.

In reality, freedom exists in necessity in the form of an unbroken chain of past free choices that have resulted in the present condition of society. Necessity, which exists within freedom in the form of objective circumstances, can only be realized through free action. Consequently, historical determinism does not deny freedom of choice in social action but presupposes it, including it as a result of such action.

According to Marx’ definition, free conscious activity is a species characteristic distinguishing humans from animals, and the freedom enjoyed in a particular historical epoch is a necessary product of historical development. Engels wrote: “The first men who separated themselves from the animal kingdom were in all essentials as unfree as the animals themselves, but each step forward in civilization was a step toward freedom” (ibid). Despite all its contradictions and its antagonistic character, social development has generally been accompanied by an expansion of the limits of individual freedom, and ultimately it will result in the liberation of humanity from social restrictions on freedom in classless communist society, where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 447). If the extent of human freedom is considered a measure of social progress, the pace of social progress depends on the degree of freedom people possess.

The degree of freedom enjoyed in a specific historical epoch is generally defined by the level of development of the productive forces, the extent of people’s knowledge of the objective processes in nature and in society, and the social and political structure of the society. The freedom of the individual always represents merely a portion of the freedom enjoyed by an entire society. In this sense, as Lenin pointed out when he repudiated anarchistic, individualistic conceptions of the freedom of the individual, “one cannot live in society and be free from society” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 12, p. 104).

In antagonistic class society the division of labor, private ownership of the means of production, and the division of society into antagonistic classes result in the domination of particular interests and the spontaneous operation of processes that are beyond people’s control and that are accompanied by social cataclysms. Under such conditions, the reverse side of the freedom of the ruling class to dispose of property, material wealth, and knowledge is the necessity for the exploited class to labor for the enrichment of others and to obey the will of others. In the relations between individuals, the individual freedom of some is eroded by the arbitrary power of others to do as they please. The measure of individual freedom is the extent of private property, which is the main determinant of opportunities for enjoying material and cultural goods. Under these conditions, the freedom of the overwhelming majority is restricted, and at the same time, there is a colossal waste of material and human resources in a society.

Seeking to expropriate for its own use as much as possible of the total freedom potentially available to society as a whole, the ruling class in antagonistic class society has always imposed maximum regimentation on the behavior of the rest of the population by means of various social norms, such as caste systems, social estates, and other hierarchical and legal systems. Such legalized limitations on the behavior of the majority become the condition for the freedom and arbitrary rule of the privileged minority.

Regardless of its ideological form, the people’s struggle against social restrictions on their freedom has been a powerful, driving force for social progress throughout history. Demands for freedom and equality have fueled each other, although they have been justified in different ways by the ideologists of various classes. On the eve of the bourgeois revolutions in Western Europe and North America, these demands took the form of an assertion of the natural right of all people to partake equally in the benefits of civilization, to dispose equally of the fruits of their labor, and to determine their own fate. Under the slogan “Liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the progressive bourgeoisie led the masses in the struggle against feudalism. However, these principles could not be realized in capitalist society.

The history of capitalism refuted the bourgeois doctrines of freedom, especially the popular, 19th-century liberal ideas of A. Smith, J. Bentham, and J. S. Mill, who argued that maximum restrictions on government, the freedom of the individual to dispose of his private property, and the individual’s pursuit of rational self-interest would lead to universal well-being, with the result that the individual freedom of all members of society would flourish. Even in the most advanced capitalist countries, individual freedom is largely a formality, and reactionary forces constantly infringe on the rights won by the masses through stubborn struggle (for example, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of organization, and freedom of assembly).

Because it is irresistibly attractive to the broad masses, the slogan of “freedom” is widely used by bourgeois ideologists for propaganda purposes. For precisely this reason, the phrase “the free world” is used to designate the capitalist West, and the most reactionary organizations promote their own interests by using the word “freedom” in a wide variety of contexts. Many bourgeois ideologists, including M. Friedman, H. Wallich, and C. Whittaker, openly counterpose freedom to equality. At the same time, various technocratic and behaviorist theories, which denigrate and even openly reject the freedom of the individual, have become popular in the West. For example, the American social psychologist B. F. Skinner and his followers deny individual freedom and justify the manipulation of people’s consciousness and behavior. With the crisis of bourgeois individualism, with the increasing restriction of individual freedom and disregard for human dignity by the state-monopoly bureaucracy, these theories are attractive to members of the ruling class who wish to suppress democratic rights and strengthen bureaucratic control over the masses. At the same time, these theories are shared by representatives of the liberal intelligentsia and the radical youth, who have become so disillusioned with the traditional values of bourgeois civilization that they are inclined to regard all individual freedom as a sham. From a long-term historical perspective, however, the expansion of freedom is a dialectical, irreversible process moving toward the consistent social and national emancipation of mankind.

The objective conditions for genuine freedom can be realized only through the elimination of the antagonistic relations that private property fosters between people. When planned development replaces the spontaneous processes in society, eliminating most unforeseen economic and social consequences, people’s social activity becomes genuinely free, conscious, creative historical action. According to Engels, in communist society “the objective, external forces which have hitherto dominated history will pass under the control of men themselves. It is only from this point that men, with full consciousness, will fashion their own history; it is only from this point that the social causes set in motion by men will have, predominantly and in constantly increasing measure, the effects willed by men. It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom” (Anti-Dühring, 1966, p. 288). At the same time, if the maximum degree of individual freedom is to be attained, the goals set by each individual must be consistent with the interests of the rest of the members of society. Thus, every member of society receives genuine opportunities for the comprehensive, full development of his inherent abilities and talents and free access to mankind’s storehouse of knowledge, experience, and other cultural values, as well as the leisure time to master this legacy.

The socialist revolution has laid the foundation for the emancipation of people in all spheres of social life. This process has been accelerated by the rapid growth of the productive forces, the development of the scientific and technological revolution, the improvement of social relations, and general cultural progress. In communist society freedom will be embodied in the creation of all the necessary conditions for the comprehensive, harmonious development of the individual. As Marx pointed out, under communism, beyond the realm of necessity (beyond the limits of material production), “begins that development of human energy, which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom only with this realm of necessity as its basis” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, part 2, p. 387).


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20, sec. 1, ch. 2; sec. 2, ch. 2; sec. 3.
Engels, F. Liudvig Feierbakh i konets klassicheskoi nemetskoi filosofii. Ibid. vol. 21, ch. 4.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21, ch. 5.
Lenin, V. I. Chto takoe ‘druz’ia naroda’ i kak oni voiuiut protiv sotsial-demokratov? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokrititsizm. Ibid., vol. 18, ch. 3.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Ibid., vol. 23.
Programma KPSS(Priniata XXII s”ezdomKPSS). Moscow, 1974.
Materialy XXIV s”ezdaKPSS. Moscow, 1971.
Mill, J. S. Osvobode. St. Petersburg, 1901. (Translated from English.)
Hegel, G. W. F. Soch., vol. 8, Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
Lamont, C. Svoboda dolzhna byt’ svobodoi na dele. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from English.)
Yanagida, K. Filosofiia svobody. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from Japanese.)
Aptheker, H. O sushchnosti svobody. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from English.)
Davydov, Iu. N. Trud i svoboda. Moscow, 1962.
Hobbes, T. “O svobode i neobkhodimosti.” Izbr. proizv., vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.
Kommunisty i demokratiia. (Materially obmena mneniiami.) Prague, 1964.
Nikolaeva, L. V. Svoboda—neobkhodimyi produkt istoricheskogo razvitiia. Moscow, 1964.
Nearing, S. Svoboda: obeshchanie i ugroza. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from English.)
Oizerman, T. I. Marksistsko-leninskoe ponimanie svobody. Moscow, 1967.
Davidovich, V. Grani svobody. Moscow, 1969.
Bailer, E. Chelovek i svoboda. Moscow, 1972.
Fromm, E. Escape From Freedom. New York-Toronto, 1941.
Sartre, J.-P. L’Existentialisme est un humanisme. Paris, 1946.
Dobzhansky, T. G. Biological Basis of Human Freedom. New York, 1956.
Adler, M. J. The Idea of Freedom, vols. 1–2. New York, 1958.
Gurvitch, G. Déterminismes sociaux et liberté humaine, 2nd ed. Paris, 1963.
Skinner, B. F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 7th ed. New York, 1972.
Beyond the Punitive Society. San Francisco, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


See also Deliverance.
pamphlet supporting freedom of the press. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 46]
1940s underground railroad for Jews out of East Europe. [Jew. Hist.: Wigoder, 80]
Bill of Rights
(1791) term popularly applied to first 10 Amendments of U.S. Constitution. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 78]
Declaration of Human Rights
(1948) declaration passed by the United Nations; the rights are the individual freedoms usually associated with Western democracy. [World Hist.: Payton, 186]
Declaration of Independence
(1776) document declaring the independence of the North American colonies. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 186]
Declaration of Indulgence
(1672) Charles II’s attempt to suspend discrimination against Nonconformists and Catholics. [Br. Hist.: Payton, 186]
Declaration of the Rights of Man
(1789) proclaimed legal equality of man. [Fr. Hist.: Payton, 186]
widely used as national symbol. [Animal Folklore: Jobes, 213]
epithet of Zeus, meaning “god of freedom.” [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 292]
Fourth of July
American independence day. [Am. Culture: Misc.]
Great Emancipator, The
sobriquet of Abraham Lincoln. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 329]
Henry, Patrick
(1736–1799) famous American patriot known for his statement: “Give me liberty or give me death.” [Am. Hist.: Hart, 367]
Jubilee year
fiftieth year; liberty proclaimed for all inhabitants. [O.T.: Leviticus 25:8–13]
Magna Charta
symbol of British liberty. [Br. Hist.: Bishop, 49–52, 213]
Monroe Doctrine
consolidated South American independence; stonewalled European intervention. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 329–330]
Phrygian cap
presented to slaves upon manumission. [Rom. Hist.: Jobes, 287]
Rütli Oath
legendary pact establishing independence of Swiss cantons (1307). [Swiss Hist.: NCE, 2384]
liberator of Rome from warring Colonna and Orsini families. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Rienzi, Westerman, 203]
site of Magna Charta signing (1215). [Br. Hist.: Bishop, 49–52, 213]
Statue of Liberty
perhaps the most famous monument to independence. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 284]
Underground Railroad
effective means of escape for southern slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 514]
water willow
indicates independence. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 178]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the quality or state of being free, esp to enjoy political and civil liberties
2. autonomy, self-government, or independence
3. Philosophy the quality, esp of the will or the individual, of not being totally constrained; able to choose between alternative actions in identical circumstances
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The freedom to build or join our own clubs or associations.
Open Markets: trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom
50 in the personal freedom category and ranked in the 100th place.
The country scored 6.50 in the 'Personal Freedom' category, 7.34 in the 'Economic Freedom' and 6.92 in the 'Human Freedom' category.
The largest shift since 2016 among Democratic students is in their views of freedom of the press.
Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH, Ambassador Bruce Berton noted that there are many challenges in the field of media freedom and freedom of expression in BiH, such as threats to journalists, propaganda and fake news, and the lack of laws regulating the transparency of ownership of media outlets.
The Index of Economic Freedom, as the Heritage Foundation's ranking is called, scores countries based on twelve factors: property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity, tax burden, government spending, fiscal health, business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom and financial freedom.
This is especially true in the area of international religious freedom--religious freedom outside the United States.
Most press advocacy groups have ranked Turkey as "not free" in their latest press freedom indices.
The country's score has increased by 0.4 point since last year, reflecting improvements in investment freedom and freedom from corruption.