Tag Archives: LIberalism

Conservatives, Where Are They Coming From?

Roger Scruton, Conservatism:

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

(St. Martin’s Press)

Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition should be read in tandem with Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, reviewed here earlier this month.  Scruton, a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature who currently teaches at the University of Buckingham, has produced a work much like that of Rosenblatt, an erudite yet eminently readable piece of intellectual history.  Whereas Rosenblatt’s work centers on the etymology of the word “liberal,” Scruton focuses on what he terms the “tradition” of conservatism — but that may be a distinction without a difference.

The journey that Scruton takes his readers on overlaps at a surprising number of junctures along the way with people and places highlighted in Rosenblatt’s work, including a focus on the same core countries: France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  Scruton’s work accords more attention to Great Britain than to the other three and might be considered first and foremost a portrayal of the British conservative tradition.  But Scruton locates the origins of that tradition in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Rosenblatt’s starting points for modern liberalism.

Modern conservatism, Scruton writes, began more as a “hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and philosophy in its own right” (p.33).  The relationship between liberalism and conservatism, he emphasizes, should not be thought of as one of “absolute antagonism” but rather of “symbiosis” (p.55).  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, liberals and conservatives sparred in various contexts over the implications and limitations of the revolution’s ideals of liberté and égalité and the management of change.  Conservative hesitations “began to crystallize as theories and policies” (p.33) as a necessary counter to what Scruton terms the “liberal individualism” that the French Revolution seemed to prioritize.

Liberal individualism leads to a belief in the “right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs” (p.6), Scruton writes.  In the eyes of conservatives, liberal individualism does not regard liberty as a “shared culture, based on tacit conventions” (p.6).  This perception runs counter to the liberalism that Rosenblatt depicts, in which liberals at least until World War II consistently grounded individual rights in the needs of the larger community.  But liberalism makes sense, Scruton contends,  “only in the social context that conservatism defends” (p.55), a proposition Rosenblatt would likely endorse.

In Scruton’s account, conservatism in the mid-19th century found its natural antithesis not in liberalism but rather in the cluster of movements known as “socialism,” movements that spoke for an emerging working class as the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.  For the remainder of the century and into the 20th, conservatives opposed socialist schemes to reform society from top to bottom, whether utopian,  evolutionary, revolutionary or dictatorial.  Scruton’s conservative tradition might therefore be thought of as a flashing yellow light for liberalism – slow down! – and a stark red light for socialism – – stop!!

With conservatism and socialism at odds from the start, one strand of conservatism aligned with what was termed “classical liberalism,” which favored free markets and generally unfettered industrial capitalism.  But another strand, termed “cultural conservatism,” found itself largely in agreement with much of the socialist analysis of the deleterious effects of capitalism.  This strand, which has proved surprisingly enduring, proposed culture as “both the remedy to the loneliness and alienation of industrial society, and the thing most under threat from the new advocates of social reform” (p.82).

Scrtuon, again like Rosenblatt, is at his best when he describes the conservative tradition during the 19th century.  He too seems to run low on fuel when moving into the 20th century, especially the post World War II era.  Readers may be disappointed to find, for example, no analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to modern conservatism, or the implications of Brexit and the “populism” which purportedly fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a term Scruton scrupulously avoids.

But these voids underscore what I suspect may be Scruton’s main if implicit point: that the key to understanding the conservative tradition lies more in an appreciation of conservative attitudes and dispositions than in comprehending discrete principles or the evolution of thinking over the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French Revolution.  Scruton acknowledges that conservatives have not always been good in defining or explaining their goals and notes wryly that they “suffer under a burden of disapproval, which they believe comes from their habit of telling the truth, but which their opponents ascribe either to ‘nostalgia’ for an old and misremembered way of life or a failure of compassion toward the new ways of life that are emerging to replace it” (p.154-55).

* * *

Scruton begins by emphasizing the debt that modern conservatism owes to Aristotle, to the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the philosophies of such key 17th century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).  But modern conservatism received its first extended articulation in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, more than a year after the fall of the Bastille but prior to the execution of King Louis XVI and the advent of the Reign of Terror.  Burke (1729-1797), the Irish-born Whig Parliamentarian whom Scruton considers the “greatest of British conservative thinkers” (p.26), demonstrated in Reflections an “astonishing” ability to “see to the heart of things and to predict the way in which they are bound to go” (p.44).

Burke questioned the revolutionaries’ abstract faith in reason.  He favored a more particularized form of reasoning that emerges “through custom, free exchange and ‘prejudice’” (p.51). To Burke, the revolutionaries in France had failed to take account of the passions and sentiments that govern human character at least as much as reason.  The past to Burke was not something to be discarded and overcome, as the most radical of the revolutionaries seemed to maintain, but rather something to be built upon (among the radicals Burke had in mind was the American Thomas Paine, whose debates with Burke are ably captured in Yuval Levin’s work reviewed here in 2015).

Burke and his Reflections provided modern conservatism – or at least the British version – with a blueprint that defined its distinctive character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century: a “defence of inheritance against radical innovation, an insistence that the liberation of the individual could not be achieved without the maintenance of customs and institutions that were threatened by the single-minded emphasis on freedom and equality” (p.104).  To be sure, human societies must change over time, but only in the name of “continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have” (p.3).  Burkean conservatism should not therefore be mistaken for political reaction.

The most articulate of the reactionaries, diehard French lawyer and philosopher Joseph Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), defended the divine right of kings, advocated for restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and saw the Enlightenment as a an “insurrection against God” (p.69).  De Maistre spoke for a wide range of ultra-royalists, disaffected nobles and backward-looking Catholics who sought in essence to undo the whole Enlightenment project and restore all that had been swept away by the French Revolution.  Scruton sees in de Maistre’s thinking a “certain remorseless extremism” (p.69) which does not fit comfortably within the conservative tradition he depicts.  Since de Maistre’s time, Scruton argues, conservatism in France has “almost invariably” been connected with a “reverence for the Catholic faith and for France as bearing witness to that faith” (p.71).

In German-speaking lands in the early 19th century, the differences between liberalism and conservatism were placed in sharp focus by debates between the two greatest German-speaking political philsophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  Kant in many ways epitomized the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, placing the “freely choosing individual into the very center of his world view” and judging “all institutions and procedures in terms of that one idea” (p.56; in a work on the 18th century Enlightenment reviewed here in 2015, Anthony Pagden argued that Kant was the Enlightenment’s single most important thinker).

Hegel by contrast regarded Kant’s freely choosing self as an “empty abstraction. The self does not exist prior to society, but is created in society, through . . . custom, morality and civil association” (p.59).  Hegel found the “roots of legitimate order” (p.70) not only in custom but also in continuity and free association.  In Scruton’s phrase, Hegel “rescued the human individual from the philosophy of individualism” (p.66).

But as conservatives and liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century ruminated over the limitations to the French Revolution’s ideal of liberté , it fell to the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of France’s leading 19th  century liberals, to spell out conservative hesitations over the the revolutionary ideal of égalité.  Tocqueville’s views were shaped by his tour of the United States in the 1830s, as expressed in his classic work, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville considered equality among citizens to be the hallmark of American democracy, although he was aware that the institution of slavery undermined the country’s claims of equality.

Tocqueville wrestled with how equality might be reconciled with liberty in the “increasing absence of the diversity of power that had characterized traditional aristocratic regimes” (p.75).  For Tocqueville, unchecked pursuit of equality breeds loss of individuality that tends, as Scruton puts it, “towards uniformity, and begins to see the eccentric as a threat” (p.76).  Tocqueville was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment is in a position to override the rights of minorities.

Tocqueville was among those mid-19th century liberals who shared conservative anxieties over the rise of the diverse working class movements known as “socialist.”  Conservatives recoiled at what they perceived to be socialism’s “gargantuan schemes for a ‘just’ society, to be promoted by the new kind of managerial state” (p.104).  Socialism for conservatives seemed altogether indifferent if not hostile to the very traditions they revered, and was bent upon undermining the bonds among citizens that they regarded as the glue holding societies together.  Conservative opposition to socialism in all its forms hardened in the 20th century after Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, leading to a “tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France” (p.104).

One conservative response was to align with so-called “classical liberalism,” that strand within liberalism that championed free trade, market capitalism and economic laissez faire.  But not all conservatives found the answer to socialism in laissez faire economics.  Many saw free markets as altogether amoral, exalting individualism and financial profit above the needs of the community.  The “cultural conservatism” that emerged in the mid-19th century included a strong anti-capitalist strain, addressing concerns that the demographic changes brought about by industrialization had detached people from their religious and social roots.

Scruton finds a nascent cultural conservatism in Germany with the thinking of Johann Gottried von Herder (1744-1803), once a student of Immanuel Kant.  Herder posited culture, consisting of “language, custom, folk tales and folk religion,” as the element that “unites human beings in mutual attachment” (p.96).  Herder’s cultural conservatism, Scruton notes, became a “kind of political radicalism, influencing the revolutions of 1848,” in which German speakers “laid claim to a shared identity within boundaries that would bring them together as a single nation state” (p.97).  In Britain, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was among the earliest cultural conservatives.

Coleridge sought to infuse religion back into society, but was also a strong proponent of increased government assistance for the poor, thereby setting the agenda for “subsequent cultural conservatives who opposed unbridled free market economics” (p.83).  After Coleridge, the cultural conservative banner was carried by the poet and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900), the essayist Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and, in the 20th century, by the poems, plays and essays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and the religious reflections of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).  But Scruton’s analysis of the conservative tradition in 20th century Britain revolves primarily around the thinking of three key theorists: lawyer and legal historian Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), a transition figure from 19th to 20th century conservatism; the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1993), who almost single handedly kept the argument for free market capitalism alive in the mid-20th century; and the complex and often enigmatic political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) who — also almost single handedly — was able to maintain the academic respectability of conservatism in post-World War II Britain.

* * *

In a series of posthumously published lectures, The Constitutional History of England (1908), Maitland contended that the foundations for liberty in Britain lay not in the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but in the English common law and the tradition of parliamentary representation.   Limited government,  he maintained, had been the rule rather than the exception in England from medieval times onward.  The rights claimed by Britain’s 17th and 18th century theorists in Maitland’s view had always been implied in the English common law.

Half a century later, Hayek linked Maitland’s insights into the English common law with his case for unfettered free market capitalism – for “classical” liberalism — as a further argument against centralized government planning.  In a work published in 1960, The Constitution of Liberty, his second best known work after his 1944 best seller, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek portrayed the English common law as the “heart of English society,” living proof that justice resides in the “transactions between freely associating people and not in the plans of sovereign power” (p.110).  Just as the free market is an example of a “spontaneous order, which arises by an invisible hand from free association,” generating solutions to economic problems “of its own accord,” the common law also generates a “spontaneous legal order, which, because it grows from particular solutions to particular conflicts, inherently tends to restore society to a state of equilibrium” (p.107-08).

Oakeshott attacked the murderous collectivist ideologies of the 20th century — communism, fascism and Nazism — but a part of his argument also applied to Britain and democracies generally: the damage done when politics is directed from above.  Oakeshott mounted an assault on what Scruton terms the “dirigisme” that entered British politics after World War II, in which the state would “manage” not only the economy, but also education, poverty relief, housing, employment, “just about anything on which the well-being and security of the people might seem to depend” (p.114).  Scruton goes on to note that Oakeshott utilized his position as a professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics (where Hayek also taught) to “build up a network of sympathetic students and colleagues.”  For a while,  the LSE politics department “became a center of conservative resistance to the prevailing socialist consensus” (p.115).

This passage hit me like a thud.  In the late 1960s, I was fortunate to participate in this Oakeshott-led program in political philosophy, which I considered at the time to be a stimulating but relatively obscure academic enterprise.  Scruton even mentions the contributions to conservative thought of my advisor that year – termed “tutor” at LSE – Elie Kedourie, and those of Professor Kenneth Minogue, who was my instructor for an in-depth course on Thomas Hobbes.  In Scruton’s view, Oakeshott’s program in political thought at the LSE bore some resemblance to that of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the same time period – although it is easier to say “Straussian” than “Oakeshottian” (Strauss and the influence of the Straussians were the subject of a review here in 2015).  None of this even remotely registered with me during an otherwise memorable year at LSE.

But overall, British conservatism since World War II for Scruton has been at best a “fragmentary force on the edge of intellectual life, with little or no connection to politics” (p.127).   Conservatism as the antithesis of socialism and Bolshevism more or less fell with the Berlin wall, and it has had difficulty establishing new moorings.  Today, British conservatism’s main enemies in Scruton’s view are religious extremism, especially an “armed and doctrinaire enemy, in the form of radical Islam” (p.148), the emerging orthodoxy of multi-culturalism, and “political correctness,” that “humorless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising” (p.128).  Not by accident, recent intellectual conservatism in Britain has been buttressed by many immigrant voices.  It is the “privilege of the immigré,” Scruton writes, to “speak without irony of the British Empire and of the unique culture, institutions and laws that have made Britain the safe place of refuge for so many in a smoldering world” (p.131).

* * *

The hesitations that are baked into the conservative tradition that Scruton depicts have doubtless served as useful checks on liberal enthusiasm over the past two centuries.  But readers may leave Scruton’s work wondering how these  hesitations fit into today’s cantankerous political debates.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 19, 2020

 

4 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

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.

* * *

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

 

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Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Literature and Liberalism

Adam Kirsch, Why Trilling Matters

I am ridiculously under read in classical literature, but am nonetheless intrigued by commentators who gain fame through analysis of literature.  I’ve read biographies of Alfred Kazin and Dwight McDonald, two relatively obscure critics in the 1930 –1950 time frame.  Further, I read everything I can get my hands on about Edmund Wilson, arguably America’s greatest 20th century literary critic.  Lionel Trilling, often regarded as the Jewish counterpart to the WASPish Wilson, represents a major void in my reading about literary critics.  So I was more than willing to try Adam Kirsch’s “Why Trilling Matters,” another in the Yale University Series, “Why X Matters,” notwithstanding my disappointment with my first encounter with this series, Louis Begley’s “Why Dreyfus Matters” (see February post, “The Matter of Dreyfus”).

Kirsch is a talented writer who produced a concise, incisive exploration of Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewishness, which I read two years ago (entitled, simply, “Benjamin Disraeli”).  In his book on Lionel Trilling, Kirsch shows how Trilling saw the world through the prism of literature.  Trilling demonstrated what it means to “create one’s self through and against the books one reads,” Kirsch writes (p.22).  To Kirsch, Trilling was unique as a critic in that he was always “less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our own lives” (p.97).  As our culture becomes increasingly non-literary, a development Trilling foresaw, Kirsch argues that Trilling is all the more important for “showing what it means to define one’s self through reading” (p.167).  Trilling provided proof that what Kirsch terms a “readerly heroism” is “always a possibility for those who believe in it” (p.167).

Trilling’s best-known work, “The Liberal Imagination” — published in December 1949, just as the 20th century neared its half way point — seemed to veer toward political philosophy.  In the United States at that time, Trilling famously declared, liberalism is “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” (p.38), with “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”  It would be easy to interpret this passage as a triumphal expression of Cold War, anti-Stalin, and anti-Soviet liberalism.  Looking at Trilling as an “ideologist of liberal anti-Communism,” Kirsch writes, is “not wrong” (p.39).  Trilling was involved in the “soul-searching debates among the erstwhile radicals of the Partisan Review circle,” and was convinced that “liberal indulgence of Stalinism was a political and cultural disaster” (p.39).

Kirsch argues that Trilling and The Liberal Imagination are therefore “central to our understanding of the main project of post-war liberal thought: a renewed commitment to pluralism” (p.69-70).  Trilling “reaches the same kind of conclusions that can be found in the work of Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt” (p.70), but through the medium of literature rather than history or political philosophy.  “If the basic principles of liberalism today are a renunciation of utopianism and the sanctity of diversity,” Kirsch contends, “then Trilling deserves to be credited as one of liberalism’s most profound expositors” (p.70).

But for Trilling, “liberal” was a “deliberately elusive” word.  What it names is:

 at once an emotional tendency, a literary value, an intellectual tradition, and a way of being in the world.  Only sometimes, and as it were incidentally, does Trilling speak of liberalism as a position in American politics (p.40).

More than any 20th century intellectual, Kirsch argues, Trilling stood for the principle that “society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination” (p.4).  Trilling urged liberals to learn from literature the “essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty” (p.38).  Literature offers “moral realism” to liberalism, inducing awareness of the “contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life” (p.60).   It permits the writer and the reader to “face down the intolerable contradictions of history” (p.68) and come to some understanding of evil (p.104).

At a time when the possibility of reading in Lionel Trilling’s “existentially engaged way” seems almost quaint, Adam Kirsch demonstrates in his engaging volume why Trilling deserves our attention.  As Kirsch states, no critic could be “more inspiring, or more necessary” (p.22).

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 8, 2012

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Filed under Literature