Franz Neumann on the importance of history to freedom

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in April 2016

900 words / 5 min.
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Freedom, argues Franz Neumann, requires several kinds of knowledge (historical, for example), not simply the absence of state (or private) coercion – though that too is a necessary and critical element.

Please note that this post is from 2016. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Franz Neumann, a key political theorist of the mid-twentieth century, on freedom:

For today, freedom is defined — as it has been for decades — as essentially negative-juristic, that is, as absence of coercion … and “coercion” is defined in such a way that the activity of the state alone appears as coercion. The less the state intervenes the greater the freedom, and vice versa. … [F]undamentally the ideal is that of a society without a state, for the state is the enemy of freedom.1

Freedom and the State

Neumann agrees in general with this definition, but adds key qualifications. His core reservations involve the overemphasis on the state as the “enemy of freedom.”

Sometimes governments protect freedom

First, a government may actually protect freedom, rather than threaten it:

I cannot agree that the state is always the enemy of freedom. … For it is conceivable — and, thank God, not so rare — that the state defends freedom, externally and internally.2

Private threats to freedom and the majoritarian problem

Second, the state is not the only threat to freedom. Non-governmental actors — private collections of people, including corporations, religious groups, or perhaps, in a democracy, a simple 51% voting majority — may also threaten freedom, and who then will protect the freedom of the minority?

After all, we know from history how frequently and brutally private groups have tried to force their value systems upon a people. How then, then, do minorities find protection? Is it not the proper task of the state — as the representative of universal interests — to restore the balance which is engendered by the egoistic interests of private groups?3

Necessity to justify state action still key

Despite the threats from private groups, Neumann maintains that freedom from state coercion is thus “necessary, but not sufficient.”4 It is critical, though, and with the legal presumption in place that government action is always a potential threat, the state must then “justify its interference with freedom in each case” in the face of “a presumption in favor of freedom and against state coercion.”5 (American courts implement this presumption with constitutional and common-law concepts like levels of scrutiny and the precedent behind the so-called “police power” when analyzing the actions of state and federal governments.)

Freedom requires knowledge

And third, says Neumann more abstractly and philosophically, freedom requires knowledge. To get this knowledge — to be free to act, in essence — requires knowledge of “external nature,” “human nature,” and “the historical process.”6. All three kinds of knowledge are necessary for freedom, meaning that “the natural scientist, the humanist and social scientist, the psychologist thus all have the same rank and the same significance.”7

Each kind of knowledge may also be used to restrict freedom (think of the possibilities created by the telephone, or the Internet, to both enable new possibilities for individuals to act and for the state to restrict or surveil). 8

Historical knowledge

In particular, historical knowledge is necessary to freedom — in a rather utilitarian and practical sense (although Neumann is leery of allowing in too much utilitarianism because he worries that the state may “prescribe what it considers useful” — consider the battle over funding science/technology and the neglect of the humanities by both political sides — thus potentially harming freedom9). I say “utilitarian” and “practical” because Neumann maintains that the utilization of scientific or psychological knowledge for good or for ill depends on the historical situation — and understanding that situation requires historical knowledge.10

In other words, history helps us understand the context in which we act and thus to make decisions about how to apply our knowledge of the natural and the human world. Without historical understanding, effective practical decision making becomes difficult or impossible. This is the classic, but frequently ignored, concept that science may build an atomic bomb, but that the humanities provides critical insight into any decision to use it. Ignoring history is thus ignoring critical data; ignoring critical data leads to bad decisions.

In conclusion, inquiry and knowledge are key

As Neumann makes clear, historical knowledge is not privileged over knowledge of the natural or human realms (i.e., biology, computer science, psychology, sociology, political science — these are all equally key to freedom).

But recognizing the value of this knowledge, while, key, must not lie in the hands of state actors, as this risks the state deciding on utility — and thus threatening (individual) freedom. Only scholars — as individuals — can decide what form of scientific/knowledge-seeking inquiry is legitimate if freedom is to be preserved. And only political systems that “respect[] and enforce[] the civil rights of the individual” actually “promote[] scientific inquiry” (though that has not necessarily been true throughout history).11

In short, Neumann, a witness (and eventual participant in the Nuremberg trials) to the atrocities of the totalitarian Nazi regime, at one time a socialist (but not Soviet) sympathizer, argues that in the contemporary world at least, freedom requires knowledge, not simply the absence of state coercion.

  1. Franz L Neumann, “Intellectual and Political Freedom,” The Democratic and the Authoritarian State; Essays in Political and Legal Theory. (New York: Free Press, 1964), 201. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid., 3. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid., 203. 
  8. Ibid., 204-05. 
  9. Ibid., 206. 
  10. Ibid., 205-06. 
  11. Ibid., 206