Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome
To the Twenty-First Century
(Princeton University Press)
If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month, you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention. But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.” These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265). American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?
Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:
People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).
Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.
The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character. Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9). During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.
Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other. These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).
Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States. France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3). More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue. The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany. But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.
From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.” For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4). People have rights because they have duties. Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4). Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4). The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.
Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term. Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage. Voting was a trust, not a right. Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule. Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”
While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal). But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.
Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute? Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty? This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.
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With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant). The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre. As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.” Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted. Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).
Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state. Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66). A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed. Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.
Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état. They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.
After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family. They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful. Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community. In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68). English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism. For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).
Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe. Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël. Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.
Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism. He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities. But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals). Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).
Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist. Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103). The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).
In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor. They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth . They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226). French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).
But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck. Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability. Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).
Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222). Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222). Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny. They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226). On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.
* * *
During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258). Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized. Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.
Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life. By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).
The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism. But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261). American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had. Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.” American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).
Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism. He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261). For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.
In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism. Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller. Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom. “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism. “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.
Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning). During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.” To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”
* * *
The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271). Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good. Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271). In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273). Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).
Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete. A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
September 7, 2020