Politics & Policy

What Is ‘Liberalism’?

It depends on which one you mean. Helena Rosenblatt in her new book reminds us of the diversity in a long tradition in Western political philosophy.

Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism is an important work of scholarship, a survey of the varieties of “liberalism” in the past two centuries. At a time when defenders of “liberalism” fear that their ideological enemies have the winds of history at their backs, Rosenblatt offers a helpful reminder of the diversity within the tradition of “liberalism” and of the ways that certain variants of liberalism can end up undermining its promise. Those who champion liberalism have often seen it as an embattled worldview (particularly on the European continent), but they have also sometimes inadvertently supplied arms against it.

Rosenblatt offers “a word history” of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism.” As she notes at the outset, their meanings are deeply contested. In France, “liberal” is associated with “favoring ‘small government,’ while in America it signifies favoring ‘big government.’” Self-professed “liberals” call for extending the welfare state, while others claiming the same title argue that it’s an unjustified restriction on liberty. The Lost History of Liberalism is intellectual history, not ideological polemic, so Rosenblatt does not set out to determine which faction counts as the “real liberalism”; she seeks instead to explore the complexity of the tradition.

She does, however, construct an overarching argument: She sketches the limits to “the idea that liberalism is an Anglo-American tradition concerned primarily with the protection of individual rights and interests.” Anglo-American liberalism, she explains, is only only one branch of the tradition, not the whole of it. She devotes particular attention to French and German history and finds that liberals in that context were acutely aware of the dangers of atomism. They believed that the principle of self-interest had to be supplemented with other ideals. “Most liberals were moralistic,” she maintains, and “ceaselessly advocated generosity, moral probity, and civic values.”

Rosenblatt begins with the Latin word liberalitas, which conveyed the importance of generosity and civic responsibility. As that concept was transmitted through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, it underwent modifications. The spirit of generosity in liberty often intertwines with post-Reformation claims for religious toleration. In a letter to Newport’s Hebrew Congregation in 1790, George Washington applauded the United States “for having given mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy” in which “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Liberalitas’s premise of aristocratic duty and generosity became the ground for an argument for political liberty, according to which everyone is free to pursue his or her own convictions. A society that is liberal in that sense shows its magnanimity by its respect for freedom of conscience.

In time, those who championed “liberalism” adopted a variety of other causes. Rosenblatt chronicles the wild swings of France, which toggled between variants of democracy and dictatorship in the century after the Revolution. She explores the wave of liberal anxiety that followed Bismarck’s rise in Germany and that led to new thinking among liberals there. Moving westward from the Continent, she looks at evolving American and British debates about liberalism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when liberals developed ideas on education, religion, social programs, gender relations, and economics. And she concludes with an intriguing account of the way a certain form of market-oriented liberalism grew more prominent in response to the totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The ideological diversity among liberals was vast. Some liberals vehemently opposed socialism, while others supported it — the French prime minister Leon Bourgeois, for example, called himself a “liberal socialist.” Nonetheless, certain continuities, while not necessarily universal, could be found across “liberal” writing. One of them was attention to the texture of a society. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a famous exposition of the idea that political liberty depends on deep social capital, but he was not alone in his insight. Many liberals argued that moral reform was central to — if not a precondition of — successful liberalism. In the liberal French constitution of 1848, the basis of the republic was said to be “family, work, property, and public order.”

Liberals might disagree about how much the state should intervene to secure and protect those desiderata, but many of them did agree that the conditions underpinning political liberty were important. And even many of those sometimes identified with “classical liberalism” were sympathetic to government intervention in pursuit of certain social ends. John Stuart Mill, for instance, as Rosenblatt notes, thought that “government should play a role in the protection of the less able,” support conservation measures, build lighthouses, and take on other enterprises that advance the public interest.

Hostility to orthodox religion was common among liberals of various persuasions. Many were sympathetic to some version of a “religion of humanity,” a religion that did “not dwell on gloomy doctrines about man’s sinfulness, nor stress dogmas and the supernatural. Instead it emphasized the importance of moral comportment and belief in man’s ability to improve himself.” Subscribing to such a creed, many liberals were suspicious of highly structured organized religion in general and of Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism in particular. In France, the Catholic Church was a major institutional rival of the state; battles between the Church and liberals are a thread throughout Rosenblatt’s narrative.

In such battles, the promises of some variants of liberalism can ring hollow indeed. The radical phase of the French Revolution led to widespread religious persecution and the slaughter of religious dissenters. In Bismarck’s Germany, liberals supported his Kulturkampf, which entailed radical new restrictions on religious life, requiring, for example, state approval for various ecclesiastical appointments. One German liberal championed “the burning hate with which the German Empire persecutes Jesuitism” as a means of defending Germany as “the land of toleration and enlightenment.”

That repression of religion shows not only how liberals can fall short of the promises of liberty; it also points to deeper tensions within “liberalism” and to possible modes of rehabilitating the exercise of liberty. “Gloomy doctrines about man’s sinfulness” might be passé in certain quarters, but they can be useful warnings against the dangers of moral vanity: Because we are imperfect, none of us has a perfect view of justice, and so the case for intellectual charity becomes more compelling. That charity requires liberalitas in a classical sense of generosity toward others. Indeed, it seems as though conventional civil liberties cannot be maintained without some level of liberalitas.

The waning of that sense of liberalitas threatens liberalism’s purported project of advancing tolerance and liberty. Doctrinaire secularists who try to purge religion from public life place heightened burdens on the religious and eat away at the civic capital that is required for sustaining a robust republic. Moreover, a political ideology in which forms of liberal humanism are assumed to have the only legitimate claims to religious display will end up being quite repressive. Neither senators attempting to impose religious tests (against, for example, members of the Knights of Columbus) for holding public office nor media outlets using selectively edited videos to whip up mobs against high-school students could be called “magnanimous.”

While some liberals were opponents of traditional religion, others, including Tocqueville and Lord Acton, believed in its importance for sustaining the broad array of conditions that made what we now think of as “political liberalism” possible in the first place. For the liberals of various stripes who think that defending liberty requires the development of social capital, religious freedom would seem to be crucial to the task of securing the cultural foundations on which modern liberties rest.

As the high neoliberal order finds itself facing increasing opposition across the globe, Rosenblatt reminds us that liberalism contains multitudes. Moreover, the attention that liberals across the spectrum in earlier generations showed to social conditions might help inform our own policy debates. Many of us take for granted relatively stable democratic governments with a range of civic liberties, but we should not forget that they rest on deeper resources. If neglect of those resources helped pave the way for the current political disruption, attending to them again may prove a necessary step to recovering liberty generously defined.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He also blogs at A Certain ...

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