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The Conflicted Soul of Modern Liberalism

A new book traces the history of an idea—and shows what American liberals have lost.

Three Lions / Getty Images

“In the United States at this time,” Lionel Trilling asserted in 1950, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” A few years later, in his highly influential book The Liberal Tradition in America, the political scientist Louis Hartz would suggest that “the reality of atomistic social freedom” is “instinctive in the American mind.” Hartz construed liberalism narrowly as individualism and property rights, and he regarded these as the defining characteristics of American politics and culture. In turn, he took these as signs of an American exceptionalism, stemming from the absence of feudalism, as well as the weakness of both collectivism and a truly reactionary politics, in the nation’s history.

Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $35.00

Statements like those of Trilling and Hartz expressed a short-lived belief that the long sweep of American history was anchored in an elemental centrist political consensus wherein extremes of the Left and Right could only be viewed as deviations from the norm. Few scholars today would accept this depiction or the ideological weight it bore in the mid-twentieth century. In truth, the term liberalism was not widely used for much of American history. As Helena Rosenblatt argues in her wide-ranging and important book, The Lost History of Liberalism, this is a history mainly to be told in Europe. On a continent thrown into tumult by the French Revolution and the expansionist ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, the term “liberalism” first appeared around 1812. Initially a term of abuse, liberalism was soon accepted as a self-description by reformist politicians and intellectuals in Britain and Western Europe. As a political term, “liberal” was rare, by contrast, in early nineteenth-century America.

It was not until the early twentieth century that progressive intellectuals like the cofounder of The New Republic, Herbert Croly, began to popularize liberalism in America. Croly’s was a liberalism, Rosenblatt pointedly insists, that vigorously denounced laissez-faire economics and supported government intervention in the economy; its intellectual support came not from John Locke, America’s philosophical godfather in Hartz’s account, but from the so-called “social liberals” of late nineteenth-century Germany and Britain. A regular contributor to The New Republic, John Dewey, reinforced this direction in numerous articles in the 1930s, culminating in his assertion that there were “two streams” of liberalism. One was anchored in laissez-faire economics, worshipped the “gospel of individualism,” and served as a toady of big industry and banking. The other was humanitarian and open to government interventions and social legislation. American liberalism, wrote Dewey, stood for “liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.”

Rosenblatt describes her book as, essentially, a “word history of liberalism”—a work tracing the variable meanings that lie behind the seeming stability of a word over time. Pursuit of this history leads Rosenblatt back to the ancient Roman Republic, where it was believed that liberty required more than the formal protections offered by the law; freedom demanded that citizens practice liberalitas, meaning “a noble and generous way of thinking and acting toward one’s fellow citizens.” Cultivating these qualities was the task and duty of the citizen, and the artes liberales were to be the educational forms that would aid in this task.

For almost two millennia, Rosenblatt contends, being liberal meant displaying the civic virtues. Clearly an aristocratic ethos, liberality in its Roman, medieval, and early modern forms supported the concept of noblesse oblige and, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ideal of the gentleman who showed tolerance and munificence toward his inferiors. Below this hierarchical ideal of social relations, Rosenblatt detects gradual changes. The Protestant Reformation extended the virtue of generosity to the people as a whole, while Enlightenment thinkers began to speak not only of liberal individuals, but of liberal sentiments and ideas.

With the age of revolutions came a sea change in the use of the term. The American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution ushered in an epoch when rights and liberties would no longer depend on the liberality of well-disposed sovereigns but would issue from a generous and free people legislating for itself. In Europe, struggles around the principles of the French Revolution added an even stronger political dimension. In the midst of a wave of revolutions in Spain, Sardinia, Naples, Portugal, and Greece in the 1810s and early 1820s, one hostile commentator perfectly summed up the change when he lamented that the word “liberal” no longer meant “a man of generous sentiments, of enlarged, expansive mind” but a person professing “political principles averse to most of the existing governments of Europe.”

Liberalism emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution as both a political movement and a current of political thought, when individuals such as Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville often combined roles as politicians and theoreticians. As liberalism expanded, it produced a proliferation of meanings. Indeed, liberalism never had a unified doctrine, as Rosenblatt reminds us frequently. Sharp differences emerged among nineteenth-century liberals on fundamental issues. Should liberals support insurrectionary movements or work to reform existing governments? Can democracy, in its seemingly inevitable advance, be steered to avoid the tyranny of the majority while securing liberal values? Should women be enfranchised? Is liberalism compatible with European colonialism?

Liberals were divided on each of these questions. The same was true of liberal opinions on religion and economics. John Locke’s famed “Letter on Toleration” set a theme for the Enlightenment, which embraced religious tolerance as a core liberal value. Strong affinities between the Enlightenment and liberality have produced a commonplace that liberals are indifferent or even hostile toward religion. Rosenblatt counters this by pointing repeatedly to liberals’ reliance on religion. Indeed, Locke’s toleration made place for the three major monotheistic religions but saw no place for atheism, because it lacked a transcendent authority.

For many liberals, some sort of transcendent principle seemed necessary for the moral integrity of society. The faith of choice for many nineteenth-century liberals was Protestantism, or at least an open, non-hierarchical and even non-transcendental variant of Protestantism that, at its extreme, could shade over into the “religion of humanity” championed by a host of mid-nineteenth-century liberals including Mill, William Ellery Channing, Eugene Sue, Johann Bluntschli, and Edgar Quinet. Not surprisingly, Catholicism was the frequent bête-noire of liberals such as these, sometimes even pushing them into very illiberal support of anti-Catholic policies. Catholicism responded in kind: Papal encyclicals denounced liberalism as a pestilence and an evil, mired in selfishness, materialism, and unbelief. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the Church would formally proclaim religious liberty a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.”

In the economic sphere, liberals formed anything but a common front. To be sure, there were figures such as Frédéric Bastiat and Herbert Spencer who campaigned tirelessly for a minimal state and an unimpeded free market. But most nineteenth-century liberals were not doctrinaire champions of the free market, and they entertained a range of opinions about free trade and the extent of government intervention. John Stuart Mill is a particularly interesting case. In his young adulthood, Mill was a nondogmatic defender of laissez-faire, but as he aged, he witnessed the bevy of social problems that accompanied the growth of the industrial economy, and he became increasingly receptive to socialism. Ironically, an 1884 American abridgment of Mill’s Principles of Political Economy removed all references to the benefits of state intervention, thereby cementing a distorted image of Mill as a free marketeer just five years after the publication of Mill’s essays on socialism.

Rosenblatt says nothing about eighteenth and nineteenth-century German figures such as Pestalozzi, Goethe, and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had a deep impact on Mill’s conception of human flourishing. Instead, she maintains that Germany’s great and largely neglected contribution to the history of liberalism came in the late nineteenth century, when activist intellectuals insisted on the compatibility of liberal values and state intervention aimed at creating the social preconditions of individual fulfillment. The impact of this so-called “New Liberalism” was considerable. In Germany, it reoriented a somewhat older tradition of paternalistic state action toward modern values; it helped shift a significant part of the German socialist movement away from revolution and toward reformism. In a trajectory that Rosenblatt does not trace, it is also the intellectual ancestor of the post-1945 German idea of the Sozialmarktwirtschaft (social market economy).

The German ideas found many supporters in fin-de-siècle Britain, where William Gladstone had already done a lot to temper liberals’ habitual suspicions of the working-class masses. This was the form that appealed to Progressive-era American liberals like Croly and Dewey. The onset of World War I dealt a blow to the credibility of all things German, but the resonances of New Liberalism certainly continued in the New Deal.

Only in the post-World War II era, Rosenblatt argues, did liberals begin to dispense with the notion of the public good and reduce liberalism’s meaning to doctrinaire free market ideology and individualism. In a book attuned to the power of words, it is surprising that “neoliberalism” appears only once, in passing. Surely, the rise of neoliberalism, now charted in detail by several historians, is a crucial part of the story: After all, it was neoliberalism, with its anti-statism, its reduction of human relations to transactional logic, and its fundamental belief in the invisible hand, that presided over the narrowing of liberalism’s meaning, even as neoliberalism steered those values toward the political right.

In her long history of liberalism, Rosenblatt’s treatment of the twentieth century remains more or less restricted to showing the triumph of laissez-faire and individualist liberalism in America. Yet even in America, the “generous” stream of liberalism suggested by John Dewey persists—though it has undoubtedly been battered and bruised in recent decades. What is more, she gives relatively little attention to the fate of liberalism in twentieth-century France and Germany, even though, in the decades after World War II, France and West Germany were arguably the strongest embodiments of the older liberal traditions that she contrasts with post-war American liberalism. After all, both social democrats and Christian democrats in postwar France and West Germany sought to balance protection of individual rights with broad social agendas, aimed at ensuring some degree of fairness in economic arrangements.

Rosenblatt’s message for our own time is rather tepid. Clearly, she believes that a liberalism concentrated exclusively on the free market and individual rights is inadequate to a new era in which both liberalism and democracy are suffering renewed crises of legitimacy. “Liberalism, there are those who say, contains within itself the resources it needs to articulate a conception of the good and a liberal theory of virtue. Liberals,” she writes, “should reconnect with the resources of their liberal tradition to recover, understand, and embrace its core values.”

It is useful to be reminded that liberals have long insisted on generosity, the need for state intervention, and overarching conceptions of the public good. But can one convincingly designate these civic-minded qualities the core values of a political tradition that for two centuries has also repeatedly declared its allegiance to possessive individualism and the free market? Both sets of values seem equally to exist in the internally conflicted soul of modern liberalism.

Instead of leading us to a set of regenerative virtues, Rosenblatt’s account underscores the dilemmas that have chronically plagued liberalism. The history of liberalism brims with examples of fine-sounding appeals to the public good, but how is that to be determined and by whom? A political tradition with roots in paternalistic elitism, liberalism is nevertheless a product of the modern age and must ally itself with democracy. This alliance has produced many moments of profound ambivalence. Appeals to the people mix with fears of the people’s powers; despite the professed centrism of most liberals, modern history does not lack examples of liberals siding with authoritarians when faced by unpredictable radical democratic forces. And when calls to honor the public good bump up against self-interest, liberals often suffer a moment of queasiness that is usually salved by declaring a problem “complicated.

The triumphalism of mid-century American liberals like Trilling and Hartz looks quaint measured against liberalism’s long history, which far from tracing an arc of progress has been marked by ruptures, setbacks, self-contradictions, and cringe-worthy instances of hypocrisy. That vexed history revisits us presently, although it is not clear whether the period we are entering threatens to bring illiberal democracy or undemocratic liberalism. The great German historian Friedrich Meinecke remarked in 1927, on the eve of a collapse he did not yet foresee, that liberalism’s “strength today is also its weakness”—“It is so fully absorbed into the entire organism of our life that it is either ignored or treated as self-evident.” Too easily taken for granted, liberalism can wither and die, as Meinecke and his countrymen were soon to learn. Perhaps the best defense against that fate is not to defend liberalism, but to champion the liberal sentiments that animate a much broader political spectrum.