Emancipation is one of the crucial categories of contemporary philosophy. Historically speaking since the Enlightenment the category of emancipation has been central for two of the most important trends in social philosophy: Marxism and liberalism. It is of course easy to note that emancipation was comprehended differently in each movement. Briefly speaking, for liberals emancipation meant to overcome political enslavement and to constitute a society of free and autonomous individuals whereas for Marxists it marked where the estrangement of labor would be erased. However, from our perspective these two trends had many things in common.
Both trends proposed a radical vision of society stressing the necessity of fundamental change of the existing social order. Both movements had emancipation as their philosophical theme, which meant a return to true human nature. For liberalism this true nature was depicted as an autonomous free individual, and for Marxism it was an individual unfettered from the bonds of alienated labor. These common foundational assumptions suggest that the very idea of emancipation can be a secularization of religious soteriology. Proponents of liberalism and Marxism however sought a possibility of emancipation not in an afterlife but on the Earth through the radical change of society. Therefore Marxism as well as liberalism had a common enemy, that being the traditional pre-modern society with its communal values which did not allow its members to go beyond pre-inscribed borders.
Marxism and liberalism were the dominant tendencies in political philosophy but also they became the theoretical foundation of powerful social movements. It is obvious however, despite these formal affinities these movements were hostile to each other. In a sense modernity can be perceived as the struggle between these two concepts of society, including two radically different sets of values: freedom and equality.
However I think that such a diametrically opposed vision is simplified. Modernity can be viewed as a patchwork of various attempts at emancipation, which referred to the grand narratives of Marxism and liberalism but actually was focused on concrete cases. The classic example is feminist movements, oriented toward emancipation of women, which drew on Marxism and liberalism but had in view distinct objectives. Moreover such emancipatory movements justified their causes using argumentation from various sources, not only Marxism and liberalism. Christianity for instance understood, as the idea of human equality could be more persuasive source for abolitionists than liberalism. Therefore my suggestion is that thinking about emancipation we should not confine ourselves only to sweeping ideologies but to look also at particular actions and involvements, which helped to achieve emancipation in small areas of social life. If we perceive emancipation from this perspective we can find more balanced images comprising various elements of the process of emancipation.
Such perspective is of special importance if we look at ideas from the standpoint of their social settings, and this is the perspective in which I was trained. My Ph.D. adviser was a distinguished sociologist Prof. Jerzy Szacki and a member of the Warsaw School of History of Ideas, to which belonged such outstanding scholars as Leszek Kolakowski, Bronislaw Baczko, and Krzysztof Pomian. They analyzed numerous ideas of different epochs from antiquity to Marxism and liberalism but what they have in common was the belief that we can understand ideas only if we show their link with social reality. Emancipation is thus a certain general movement toward greater freedom and/or equality but it is also a set of everyday life activities, which enable people to get more autonomy in their actual social relations.
We have become increasingly suspicious of the validity of our first understanding of emancipation as connected with the grand narratives of Marxism and liberalism. Marxism embodied in political forms turned out to be an instrument of oppression after the revolutionary events of 1989, yet also seemed triumphant after liberalism revealed its hopelessness in solving social problems in the financial crisis of 2008. Therefore there is a tendency to shift attention from grand narratives to “politics of small things” to use the title of Jeffrey Goldfarb book, in which he depicted how actions on micro level of social life can result in radical social changes.
However it is difficult to conceptualize emancipation at this micro level because in order to define a certain action or event as emancipatory we need a perspective which avoiding empty universalization could locate emancipation in a concrete social context. I think that American pragmatism provides us with such perspective. In a sense pragmatism is a philosophy of emancipation but emancipation is understood in it not as the actualization of pre-given potential of human nature. Contrary to over-arching ideologies, the pragmatists, especially John Dewey and George Herbert Mead show how this potential is constituted and shaped in human interactions. Mind and the self are products of communicative activity, which is also a core of societal bonds. Emancipation from this perspective is an increasing universalization of mind and the self through broader and broader interactions. Therefore emancipation is closely connected with communication, which is on turn linked with social systems. The less social obstacles to social interaction the richer is the human potential. Democracy is the most open and flexible social system, as a “natural” locus of emancipation. Democracy however by no means guarantees that the process of emancipation will go smoothly. But the most important advantage of democracy is that it allows us to experiment with social relations in order to create a more just and open society.
At the beginning of 21st century we have to face unprecedented challenges in our more and more globalized world. We know that freedom and equality of human individuals is vulnerable to the dominance and oppression of economic and political globalization. To cope with challenges we need to re-think the main philosophical categories of human autonomy and show in which way they are still relevant to the new emerging world. Emancipation is one of these categories, which in the last two hundred years have been “regulative rules” in the struggle for the better arrangement of social relations. We are obliged to preserve this heritage but also re-think it for the coming uncertain future.
by Leszek Koczanowicz
 Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things. The Power of the Powerless in Dark Time, University of Chicago Press 2006