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Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


Liberalism is not a precise ideology. It does not have clear system of beliefs or a set of texts to which its adherents must subscribe. It is rather a set of attitudes, including particularly an emphasis on the recognition of the rights of the individual and tolerance, which permits considerable diversity of views among liberals. It can be described but not prescribed.

Liberalism is a term that was first used in England the early nineteenth century. It is now used in much of the world to indicate a political system characterized by freedom of association, the rule of law, and the rejection of arbitrary authority. Liberalism also provides for individual freedom, equality before the law, possession of private property, clear constitutional limits on governmental power, and representative and democratic political decision making. Many of the richest societies are liberal—including the major Anglophone countries of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—and, with some qualifications, most of the countries of the European Union.

who controls government? Individuals supported by the people

how is government put into power? Popular vote of the majority

what roles do the people have? Vote; Bring about social change

who controls production of goods? Private citizens

who controls distribution of goods? Private citizens

major figures John Stuart Mill; William Gladstone

historical example Great Britain, 1870–1900

The term "liberal" has a somewhat different usage in the U.S. to most of Europe and elsewhere in the English–speaking world. In the U.S., liberal is often used in a way that elsewhere would mean leftist, or one who supports the expansion of the power of the state or government. In Europe, this is reserved for the terms socialist, social democrat, or leftist, and liberal there usually means some one who does not support the expansion or use of the power of the state in political or economic affairs.


1670:      Benedict de Spinoza's A Theological–Political Treatise is published

1688:      The Glorious Revolution occurs in England

1748:      Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws is published

1779:      Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation is published

1786–1788:      The Constitutional Convention is held in the newly created United States of America

1868:      William Ewart Gladstone becomes the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Great Britain

1869:      John Stuart Mill's On Library and The Subjection of Women are published

1962:      Milton and Rose D. Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom is published

1971:      John Rawl's A Theory of Justice is published

1992:      Democrat Bill Clinton is elected President of the United States

Liberalism can be understood as a political tradition that has varied in different countries. In England, the birthplace of liberalism, the liberal tradition in politics has centred on individual rights, religious toleration, government by consent, and personal and economic freedom. In France, liberalism has been more closely associated with secularism and democracy. In the U.S., liberals often combines a commitment to personal liberty with an antipathy to capitalism, while liberals in Australia tend to be much more sympathetic to capitalism, but often less enthusiastic about the state defending civil liberties.


Liberalism is a doctrine that emerged from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It became particularly strong in England, but also in the U.S., France, and later, other Anglophone societies like Australia. In each of these countries it assumed slightly different forms.

The major philosophers of liberalism belong to a number of groups of theorists. The first includes several theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who preceded liberalism proper but who anticipated its doctrines. These were followed by the political and economic theorists of classical liberalism in the mid–nineteenth century. Later, other liberal theorists modified those doctrines of the classical liberals and are often called "social liberals." There also emerged in the twentieth century defenders of classical liberalism including, in the economic sphere, the "Austrian School."

A History of Liberal Theory: The Precursors of Liberalism

Until the seventeenth century, most European political philosophy was chiefly set in theological terms. One of its principal concerns was the achievement of God's will on earth and the protection of the Christian religion.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which believed humans had the ability to discern truth without appeal to religious doctrine. This marked: the beginning of scientific history; the need to justify doctrine by reason; freedom is necessary to advance progress; historical criticism as necessary to determine the historical legacy; the need for critical philosophy; and the use of ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology. It also entailed a suspicion of all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, like tradition or divine revelation.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) the leading German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) asserted all that can be known, is things as they are experienced. Other Philosophers attempted to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. This was, according to Kant, a vain attempt. God could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history and reveal himself.

But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man's conscience that testified of God's existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), which set forth his conception that religion could be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant, this meant living by the categorical imperative— which he summarized in two maxims: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law"; and "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature."

In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law.

The Federalist Debates and the U.S. Constitution

In terms of political philosophy, the defining moment of the seventeenth century was the English Revolution. The two revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, in America and then in France, established substantial monuments to the intellectual debates about constitutionality. The Thirteen Colonies in America revolted against the English Crown and enforced their Declaration of Independence (1776) in a revolutionary war. There then ensued debate among and between the former colonies about what system of government should prevail. This was resolved at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 1786–1787, in favor of the Federalists.

What form of government best suited a commercial civilization in the New World? Somewhat ironically, the British Constitution figured largely in discussion of that issue because the Americans appreciated that the British, whatever their other failings, had made most progress in that respect. The interpretation Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) and the founding fathers of the American state placed on the English Constitution, was that the separation of powers limited the power of the state and should be adopted as a principle of American government. The next great debate concerned which interests could be represented, and this was progressively resolved in favor of universal franchise in the New World, and then in the other liberal states.

Montesquieu has been called "the godfather" of the American constitution. In eighty–five Federalist Papers, 1787–1788, Montesquieu's temper and spirit is omnipresent and is often cited by anti–Federalists and Federalists alike. The anti–Federalists contended that Montesquieu had argued that a republic which extended over too large a territory would come unstuck. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton (1757– 1804) and James Madison (1751–1836), responded by arguing that Montesquieu had seen that the way to overcome this was to establish a confederation of republics. They also cited Montesquieu that representation should be proportional to the size of the population.

Madison said that Montesquieu "has the merit of displaying and recommending" the doctrine of the separation of powers "most effectually to the attention of mankind," but also that politics is about the institutional balancing of social forces. That very approach to the problem of politics explains the extremely different character of The Federalist Papers from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, penned by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), is a general statement about rights and love of freedom. Jefferson's politics was essentially driven by a republican conception of honor, by a deep faith not only in man, but in revolutionary action itself, by a mistrust of commercial society, by a desire to preserve an agrarian economy, and by an essentially populist distrust of institutions. Despite this, he nonetheless kept slaves.

The concerns of Hamilton in The Federalist Papers were different and governed by the desire to create peace and commercial prosperity, to provide a strong industrial base for America and thus to make her a strong military power, to provide institutions which could mediate conflict by providing a balance between local and national interests. He was as practical as Jefferson was romantic, and was as afraid of democratic abuses as of monarchical abuses. Hamilton's republicanism was not borne out of a belief in high minded ideals, but out of the reality of the American situation. Ultimately Jefferson's charge that Hamilton was a monarchist amounted to Hamilton's seeing the need for a head of state to have executive powers, which were not reducible to the powers of the legislature. Hamilton was a follower of Montesquieu, but not of the British monarchy.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention, of course, had a restricted conception of the scope of proper interests, being themselves almost exclusively slave–owning southerners or wealthy northern merchants. The constitution they created was not primarily intended to be democratic and it restricted the franchise to property–owning males, thereby excluding women, the working classes and the slaves from the political community. But nonetheless they did embody in the new Republic's political system the notion that legitimate interests would conflict and needed a process of resolution.

The solution of the Federalists was not one which guaranteed immediate liberties for dominated social groups. It was, however, one which was able to provide a compromise between the strongest interests of the day, by taking the strongest interests in the New World vying for political power and forging a new political system. This would provide: a strong defensive capacity; a strong central government, able for the most part to provide commercial and political stability for a vibrant industrial society; and a form of government in which local interests still had strong representation, and in which more people than ever in history had freedom.

This solution, then, did not lay in a political elimination of the diversity that sprang from the dispersal of interests, talents, desires, and sentiments, but of realizing that a large distribution of interests would, in general, counteract the danger of factionalism itself. "Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." Or break the society "into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

This argument was also a way of defending the Federalists program of a confederate republic. For a confederate republic would also aid this process of dispersion by adding another geographical layer to the interests that would be formed at either a local or state level. Thus linkages of interests could be formed between social groups, which constituted a minority in some states while being a majority in others. Further, alliances of social interests cutting along geographical lines would tend to protect minority groups. At the same time, interests based upon geographical factors might take on greater relevance at one time, while at another time, social factors which were operating nationally may dominate. The great value of Confederalism, then, was that the polymorphic nature of factionalism would aid the minority.

But while the Federalists argued that the large territory of America combined with "the multiplicity of interests" made it highly unlikely that a majority would pursue a common and unjust cause, that was only true with respect to those peoples included in the franchise. The lack of franchise would mean that those people without political representation—particularly indigenous Americans and slaves, and to a lesser extent women—could be endangered by a system in which they were just one interest among many, but lacked political rights. Thus it took almost eighty years and a war before the ambition articulated in the Jefferson Virginian Ordinance, that slavery be abolished, was realized. And the diversity of interests would not help the indigenous American as the railways moved West and the expansion of the frontier meant that Indians were driven off to reservations and treaties were routinely broken.

But the Federalists saw that there were numerous ways in which power could be congealed to the detriment of other interests. The majority could suppress or rob the minority if they exercised legislative power. There was also simply the danger, recognized by Montesquieu, that the legislature would see any restraints upon its power as restrictive, as merely the resistance of vested minority interests. Because of the danger this created for the whole, the Federalists constantly emphasized the higher priorities that must guide the national government. But at the same time, the states serve as a useful buffer against the legislature's tendency to over–extend. The Federalists thus found that the solution to balancing powers within the government had already been solved by Montesquieu and created a liberal if not wholly democratic constitution.

Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Example

A visiting Frenchman later found much to admire in the political system which the American Federalists had created, but also cause for concern. After visiting the U.S. in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) returned to France and wrote Democracy in America:

Let us not turn to America in order to slavishly copy the institutions she has fashioned for herself, but in order that we may better understand what suits us; let us look there for instruction rather than models; let us adopt the principles rather than the details of her laws…

While Montesquieu had looked to Britain and urged the French monarchy to change its ways; Tocqueville urged republican France to follow America's lead. Tocqueville looks to the New World for the most advanced constitutional arrangement.

In an 1848 speech to the French Chamber of Deputies, he warned that France rested on a volcano and that the working classes would overthrow the "foundations" upon which society rested unless property were distributed on more equally. But Tocqueville believed that social processes and change eventually resulted in political development and urged the extension of representation within a liberal state to encompass the enfranchisement of the working, non–propertied classes as was occurring in America. In the main, the U.S. had successfully combined individual freedoms with egalitarian social conditions. The two exceptions, for Tocqueville, were African and indigenous Americans. Women, on other hand, had a different situation and "although the American woman never leaves her domestic sphere and is in some respects very dependent within it, nowhere does she enjoy higher station."

With the African and Native Americans, things were very different. "In one blow oppression has deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. The United States Negro has lost even the memory of his homeland; he no longer understands the language his fathers spoke…" This oppression was compounded by slavery. Native Americans had not been slaves, but they lived on "the edge of freedom." Their life had been destroyed through the dispossession of their lands; their adoption of new tastes such as firearms, iron, brandy, and cloth, and the dwindling of wild game.

The progress that had developed in America, combining liberty and equality had, then, come at a terrible price for Blacks and Native Americans. Tocqueville saw the paradox that what is good and progressive is not good and progressive in all respects. America had opened up a future for the world, but had done so by robbing the Indians of their lands and enslaving African Americans. Slavery was also an economic liability.

But, in the main, America had managed a blend of the pursuit of private interests and public freedom. This blend did not mean that the American political institutions were perfect. But what mattered for Tocqueville was the overall liberty and well being for most of the inhabitants, based upon the core principle running through American society: each person is the best judge of his interests. In government, administration and in private life, this way of looking at things inculcated a dynamic, responsible, daring, and energetic spirit.

Unlike Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Tocqueville does not see inequality, as such, as a problem. It was only a problem if it was static, continually rewarded the idle rather than the industrious, and if it blocked the energies of the population. Tocqueville's approach to inequality was pragmatic: it brings with it certain characteristics and incentives, but there is nothing valuable about it as such.

In America, says Tocqueville, the principle of the sovereignty of the people existed from the beginning of the colonies, even though "the colonies were still bound to the motherland." While voting rights were restricted to certain classes of property holders, the democratic ethos was rife in the provincial assemblies. Thus when America revolted against the British, "the dogma of the sovereignty of the people came out from the township and took possession of the government; every class enlisted in its cause." Even those classes which had most to lose from the expansion of democracy, were swept along with it in the revolution. It was, then, that bonding of classes against a common external enemy, combined with an ethos that had been introduced at the moment of colonization that made the establishment of American democracy so smooth.

At the time different states had various property qualifications for voting. But Tocqueville saw that the trend was toward eliminating restrictions and expanding the franchise. Democracy was an infectious political form suggesting that there is something intrinsically desirable about it for the majority of people. But that does not mean that it is a perfect form of government, or even the most adequate form of government for achieving a range of outcomes. Tocqueville saw that the egalitarian ethos of a democratic society carried a leveling tendency, but the leveling effect is seen by Tocqueville as eliminating the worst of the extremities which plague other regimes.

For Tocqueville, the most important negative in the trade–off between aristocratic and democratic societies consisted in the diminution of glorious achievements which tended to come when a society is placed in service to the ambitions, tastes, and talents of a group who see their talents, tastes, virtues, and actions as the raison d'être of society. But the most significant gain is the energy that gets unleashed through mass participation in political affairs.

Democracy does not provide a people with the most skilful of governments, but it does what the most skilful government often cannot do: it spreads throughout the social body a restless activity, and energy not found elsewhere, which, however little favored by circumstances, can do wonders. This is liberal doctrine.

Tocqueville, like the Federalists, feared the tyranny of the majority and believed that it was inevitable that the power of the majority would dominate. Tocqueville takes care not to say that American democracy is tyrannical, rather that there is no inherent political check against it. One problem was the instability of laws and public administration. Laws would be far more likely to be rapidly introduced and just as rapidly dropped, as some new idea took the public's attention. The reformists' energy was great in the United States, but projects were frequently left unfinished. A more insidious feature of the power of the majority, according to Tocqueville, was the power over thought. Whereas, says Tocqueville, in monarchies, the monarch is not able to compel moral authority, this is precisely the ground that the majority tries to occupy.

Tocqueville's assessment of the inevitability of democracy, then, was matched by a cautious appreciation of the values of democratic society. The precarious balance achieved in America between liberty and equality was praised by Tocqueville. But he also grasped the tension that existed between them. America was fortunate in having the cultural roots which sustained this balance. Tocqueville knew that those

roots were different from other countries, including France, which he saw were destined to go down the pathway of democracy. Thus there was a deep sense of foreboding that democracy would not be as smoothly established in the old world as in the new world, that there the pull toward equality could easily tip the balance toward an egalitarian despotism, as occurred under fascism.

The same dilemma was being grappled with in England. John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who reviewed Democracy in America, praised it as the first philosophical book on democracy as it manifested itself in modern society. Mill was to evolve as the most important single advocate of applying the doctrines of liberalism, many of them already practiced in America, to Europe.

The Social Liberals

One of the most influential of the new liberals was the English academic Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882). Green did not, like Marx, propose a social revolution, but he did believe that a free society would only emerge if the state played a directing role in changing the social circumstances of men and women. In arguing for this, Green reformulated the most fundamental idea of liberalism, liberty itself. As he wrote in Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract in 1861:

We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of all blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our efforts as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom…. we do not mean merely free dom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others.

Green's position was expressed in the language of liberalism. Liberalism had arisen in opposition to the propertied classes being above the commercial class, not primarily in opposition to the classes beneath it. Although the commercial class had not wanted to spread political power to those who could soak its own wealth, the language forged in opposition to the aristocracy was the language of universality, right, equality, progress, as well as freedom. Freedom was only one of the variables in the political rhetoric that the emergent middle class had used in its political struggle. The rising working classes did not need another language in order to make its claims.

Green's philosophical conception of freedom, then, was not contrary to the ideas already embedded in liberalism, in spite of carrying a freight that many liberals viewed as contrary to the kind of society they wanted to build based on private initiative free from paternal directions.

Furthermore, what also gave Green credibility was his emphasis upon the delivery of improved living standards. The core argument of liberal political economists had never simply been that freedom was good for the wealthy, but that in a liberal society wealth would be most speedily generated and more people would benefit than under any alternative economic system. It found its economic expression most famously in Adam Smith's "invisible hand," and was in Green's time transforming the subject of economic inquiry by replacing political economy into neo–classical economics. Green did not dispute the central tenets of this liberal political economy. The liberal tradition had provided a new benchmark for measuring the value of political arrangements: progressively advancing prosperity.

Closely related to this was the connection that had been established within the liberal tradition, between the value ascribed to property and the value ascribed to capacities or personal properties. Locke's defense of private property rested upon the fact that a claim had been established through labor. In other words, private property was the expression, as Kant and then Hegel pointed out more clearly than Locke himself, of an action and an act of will. Madison had also spoken of "the diversity of faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate." The "first object of government," he said, "was the protection of these faculties." With Mill the defense of liberty had for all its warnings about paternalistic government not primarily been an argument about protecting private property, but an argument about how personal capacities and energies would best flourish.


Friedrich A. Hayek

As the expansion of the state occurred, some liberal economic theorists warned that this would entail the destruction of liberal political economy on which the prosperity of modern society depended. The most influential of these philosophers were known as the "Austrian School", and one of its most important members was Friedrich August von Hayek.

Friedrich A. Hayek was born in Vienna and studied at the University of Vienna, sitting in on von Mises' classes. Hayek wrote on Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle in 1929, which analyzed the effects of credit expansion on the capital structure of an economy. After emigrating to Great Britain in the early 1930s, Hayek became a British citizen in 1938. He lectured at the Fabian Socialist Centre and the London School of Economics (LSE), and his lectures were published in a second book on the Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle, Prices and Production (1931). He was appointed Professor at the University of London as the LSE passed out of the Fabians' control.

In London he argued with Keynes, and the Hayek–Keynes debate was one of the most important debates in monetary economics in the twentieth century. In his The End of Laissez Faire (1926), Keynes presented his interventionist pleas in the language of classical liberalism. As a result, Keynes was heralded as the "savior of capitalism," rather than an advocate of inflation and government intervention.

Although Hayek was publicly defeated, he became involved in another grand debate in economic policy on socialist economic calculation. Hayek's essays on the problems of "market socialism," developed by Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner when answering Mises and Hayek, were collected and later appeared in Individualism and Economic Order (1948). But again, Hayek appeared to lose the technical economic debate with the Keynesians concerning the causes of business cycles and, in view of the rising tide of socialism, his general philosophical perspective was increasingly labeled as a primitive version of liberalism.

Hayek, however, persisted. The problems of socialism he saw beginning to emerge in Britain led him to write The Road to Serfdom (1944). If socialism required the replacement of the market with a central plan, then, Hayek pointed out, an institution must be established to be responsible for formulating this plan. To implement the plan and to control the flow of resources, the state would have to exercise broad power in economic affairs. But in a socialist society, the state would have no market prices to serve as guides. It would have no means of knowing which production possibilities were economically rational. Further, those who would rise to the top in a socialistic regime would be those who liked exercising discretionary power and making unpleasant decisions. These people would run the system to their own personal advantage and destroy the freedom of society on which liberal economic prosperity depended.

Hayek at first achieved fame when young, but as the socialists gained popularity, the intellectual and political world moved away from his ideas. Nonetheless, he lived long enough to see his position recognized. Both Keynesians and socialists were eventually reduced by events, and Hayek became a key figure in the late twentieth century revival of liberalism.

He won his 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics, but also wrote about government intervention, economic calculation under socialism, and development of social structures. Although Hayek championed classic liberal economic policies of the late–nineteenth century, he also came to influence conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Hayek was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1991 by U.S. President George Bush, and died the next year in Freibury, Germany.

Thus the path has already been established within the liberal tradition for Green to emphasize that the job of the state is to equip its populace with the necessary skills for the exercise and development of their capacities. A state which fails to do this, thus becomes complicit in tyranny and the unfair preservation of privilege, in much the same way as the pre–liberal state had been complicit in the preservation of privilege for the select few. Private property, then, is justifiable only to the extent that it does not serve as a barrier to members of a particular social group developing their faculties. Green says because property is, "only justifiable as the free exercise of the social capabilities of all, there can be no true right to property of a kind which debars one class of men from such free exercise altogether." For social liberal theorists like Green, "the people" must mean all of those who are capable of exercising their rights and who have not acted in such a manner that they may be legitimately deprived of them. But having the capacity to exercise their rights means that barriers to them must be removed.

In addition, the argument that the state should not intervene in a non–criminal contract freely entered into may seem to be a strong argument to the social liberal position. But as Green well knew, the liberal tradition had explicitly rejected the idea of voluntary entering into slavery. Rights were inalienable. Green, thus beginning from the invalidity of a contract of slavery, goes onto argue that "no contract is valid in which human persons, willingly or unwillingly, are dealt with as commodities, because such contracts of necessity defeat the end for which alone society enforces contracts at all." Humans as rational beings should never be treated as means, because they are ends in themselves.

Green justified increasing state intervention, but did not see himself as a proponent of illiberal ideas. Protective labor legislation, public health and public education were justifiable, because they raise the well–being of those members of the population who otherwise would not be able to exercise their freedom or contribute to the public good.

The philosophy articulated by Green was built upon the synthesis of the liberal ideas of private power, the republican concern with the public good, and the egalitarian spirit of Rousseau. But it was also built in response to the social and political changes taking place in Britain. Late nineteenth century liberalism had become a doctrine as suspicious of the minority wealthy bourgeoisie, as seventeenth– and eighteenth–century liberalism had been of the aristocracy. The liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) said in 1885 that "the great evil with which we have to deal is the excessive inequality in the distribution of riches."

Liberal theorists in the twentieth century, with a few exceptions, continued further down the path of seeing the task of the state as providing the conditions for social justice. Invariably that meant restraining the liberty of the wealthy. The best known exceptions to this were mainly economists, such as Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) and Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992). The Mises–Hayek Theory of the trade cycle—which Hayek formulated with the brilliant economist Ludwig von Mises—argued a "cluster of errors" characterizes the cycle. Excessive credit expansion occurs artificially lowering of interest rates that misleads businessmen who are led to engage in ventures that would otherwise have been unprofitable. This false signal produces poor coordination of production and consumption in society. This at first produces a "boom," and then, later, a "bust," as production adjusts to the real, and lower, pattern of savings and consumption in the economy. The intervention of government makes recessions worse.

Among philosophers the libertarian Robert Nozick also stands out. More typically, Leonard Hobhouse (1864–1929) in his classic twentieth–century defense Liberalism, 1911, said what all liberals had accepted, that "liberty itself only rests upon constraint." He argued that "the function of the state is to override individual coercion" in order to maintain social justice and such rights as "the right to work" and the right to a living wage. Wealth and property were therefore treated as social goods.


Benedict de Spinoza

In seventeenth–century Holland, Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) became first modern philosopher to overtly defend political democracy. Spinoza's philosophical starting point was the need to make a radical separation between theological scripture and philosophy: each one must be allowed to function without subordination to the other. This was a major problem for Spinoza and a central subject of his in A Theological–Political Treatise (1670). Spinoza's political problem was largely, though not exclusively, centred around the problem of freedom of speech.

Spinoza saw himself as a philosophical scientist, and realized the issue of free speech could be a matter of personal survival. He knew that while he was safe in the commercial republic of Holland, because of the perceived dangerousness of his philosophy he was not at liberty to live in various other parts of Europe.

Spinoza believed that nature was governed by scientific laws. Spinoza's understanding of all natural beings was premised on the simple idea that they are what they do. Nature is what it does, and what it does is its right. As he succinctly put it: "Whatsoever an individual does by the laws of its nature it has a sovereign right to do." Thus Spinoza made a heretical equation that was to make his name a byword for infamy: the power of nature and the power of God are the same power.

The virtue of democracy, to Spinoza, was that it will create the strongest possible power. For the sovereign will be the people as a whole. Thus the act of transference is a mutual act of transference whereby the citizens are the body politic; they are not merely subjects, but they are reconstituted in their role as sovereign legislators. Interestingly, the very thing which most other democratic theorists fear, the excessive power of the people, is what Spinoza endorses when he defines a democracy as: "a society which wields all its power as a whole. The sovereign power is not restrained by any laws, but everyone is bound to obey it in all things; such is the state of things when men either tacitly or expressly handed over to it all their power of self–defense, or in other words, all their right."

In this respect Spinoza endorses a radical form of democracy, because a democracy is least likely to ignore the pubic good, for it is its own good. A democracy is, in terms of Spinoza's philosophy, dedicated to compromising between the different powers that can come into collision.

A democracy simply provides an opportunity for all the adult male sovereign powers to provide laws that enable them to pursue their interests in so far as that is feasible. Spinoza specifically excludes slaves, criminals, children, wards of the state, and women from exercising political power. Spinoza's defense of democracy rests on a thoroughly realist foundation:

The object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched by the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.

This was the first overt expression of the key philosophical doctrine of political liberalism.

In a democracy, freedom of opinion is vital for the people to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of any piece of legislation, thus enabling it to overturn old laws if their disadvantages outweigh their benefits. While, then, Spinoza indicates that no ruler is acting in his best interest if he suppresses free speech, in a democracy such a suppression would be most contrary to the best interests of the sovereign body itself.

While Spinoza was the first philosopher to provide an elaborate defense of modern democracy, he also provides a few of the hallowed conceptions usually associated with the great documents of liberal democracy. But Spinoza's conception of rights and powers also deeply contradicts the notion of natural rights that is ingrained in the constitutional tradition and incorporated in such documents as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The first modern political theorist who can be credited with providing a liberal as well as a democratic account of state theory was John Locke.

John Locke

The Englishman, John Locke, is generally regarded as being the first liberal thinker, although the term itself did not gain common currency until over a hundred years after his death. Previously, great political theorists had equated human nature with rapaciousness, only constrained by fear and force; Locke saw human nature as civil, reasonable, tolerant, and industrious, with its distribution of talents and opportunities being essentially equal.

Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government (published in 1690) in the context of the Glorious Revolution—which placed the House of Orange on the English throne—and the English Bill of Rights. For Locke, as long as one is not struggling to survive, there is a natural tendency to realize the advantage that comes from mutual respect of the rights of all to preserve their life, liberty, health, limbs, and goods. Locke does preserve a distinction between natural right and natural law, the latter of which is distinguished by its enforceability. But the legitimacy of that power derives from the right that everyone has to preserve their own basic rights. No one has the right to invade the rights of others, and "every one has the right to punish the transgressors of that Law (of nature) to such a Degree, as may hinder its Violation."

Locke's state of nature, with its original natural rights and fundamental human civility, crowned the parliamentary revolution by cementing the fiction that natural rights did indeed precede the formation of the state. And he does so by transforming the particular issue of the English nearly liberal transformation of the seventeenth century into a universal political theory. He adopted a virtual silence on the particular historical controversy, while providing a general theory in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (written from 1671, published in 1689), which was derived from his experience.

The ahistoricism of his theory meant that it could be appealed to anywhere at anytime, and would later be transposed with great success as a defense for founding new institutions in America. But the disciple of Locke can also argue as if the institutional balances which were the product of over four hundred years of intense and often bloody struggles in England can simply be imposed on societies that have no organic dispositions toward liberal democracy. Locke does not present the state of nature as if it were built upon the English experience; rather, it is the experience of reason itself. Where respect for liberty prevails, he seemed to believe, so would prosperity.

For Locke, the danger to peace was not the grasping natures of men pursuing their own interests, but the rapacious behavior of the monarch and his contempt for natural rights. This forced men to move from the calm state of nature to the state of war to protect their property and their rights. The lesson of the civil war, for Locke, was not the need to defend the absolute power of the monarchical sovereign. Rather, the lesson was that the Stuart monarchy had lost, and it had to pass down its stolen powers if the institution were to continue at all.

For Locke the cause of the conflict was the violation of those very liberties which Locke saw as natural and widely held. The people who fought against the thieving monarchs—including himself, of course—had only acted to protect what was reasonably and rightfully theirs. Further, it was through their natural respect for the rights and reasons of each other that the wealth, which the monarch sought to extract through taxes, was theirs in the first place. A king does not generate prosperity: industry, cooperation, and exchange do that. Locke argued that the nature of production and the way its bounties should be distributed is plain to anyone who sets their mind to it.

The exercise of freedom and reason and its industrious deployment is thus, for Locke, the natural disposition of man. The role of government is not to change this disposition, but merely to assist its facility and development by providing for a neutral judge when disputes occur.

Locke grounded his theory of government upon reason, but this was not the purpose of government. As Locke put it: "Government has no other end but the preservation of Property," by which he means "Lives, Liberties and Estates." Locke does not criticize private property. But at the same time, he saw that private property was a corollary of social evolution. Locke does not in any way seek to make philosophers into kings, for the government must represent what the majority of the people desire. Although, Locke does assume that what will bind the majority is the protection of their own liberty.

Locke does not worry about the majority then robbing from the rich, since the suggestion in The Two Treatises of Government is that the majority is meant to include only landed property holders. There is ambiguity since "property" in Locke can mean wealth and even capacity as well as land and he does not go into any detail about who is to have the franchise. But it is reasonable to assume that Locke, like so many liberal theorists even into the nineteenth century, did not automatically equate political and civic rights. Likewise, given that the general thrust of the The Two Treatises of Government is so in harmony with the English parliamentary model and the tenor of the "Bill of Rights," it is also reasonable to assume that Locke believed that the criteria for representation in the parliament was, to a large extent, already sufficiently refined. In his lifetime this was very narrow. On the other hand, the justification of "political and civil society," for Locke, rests upon the consent of "All Men," "Mankind" and "the People." He also points out the need to have "fair and equal" representation and to make sure that electorates are not numerically distorted.

Probably, Locke did not trouble himself with the dangers of a democracy allowing the poor to take the property of the rich because he did not believe the poor would acquire political power. By so grounding the theory of government on the right of private property, Locke may have hoped that whoever constitutes the governing body would be aware of the sacrosanct nature of this right. His political solution to the preservation of the right of property is that there can be no taxation without the support of the majority, and the government has no right to deprive people of their property. Indeed, if it attempts to do so, then the people have a right to rebel.

Locke's theory of government does not solve all the problems of a democracy. But it does clearly set forth the doctrine of government as essentially a representative body of the people's rights and interests. In Locke, the political theory of the liberal–democratic state finds an eloquent and refined defense. But there is one crucial problem: how to justify curtailing the will of the majority if it makes unjust claims by intruding on the rights of a minority, or single person. Locke's theory of the state was built around the need to defend a right, the right to property.

Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu

The French aristocrat, Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was the first great theorist to raise the question of the social character and degree of social evolution of a people when exploring how government could expresses the interests of its people. His profound importance also rests on his making the connection between the commercial base of a society and its institutions of government, and the doctrine of the separation of powers.

In his Spirit of the Laws (1748) he says that what constitutes good governance will depend upon the "humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established." While Locke had relied upon natural reason to safeguard natural rights and limit government, for Montesquieu, reason was always filtered through the complex layers which constitute a particular nation.

But before Montesquieu delves into the geographical, historical, and sociological dimensions of the different "spirits" of the nations and laws that he examines, he dissects the different forms of government and the principal spirit which differentiates the monarchy, from the republic, from the aristocratic and from the despotic. Montesquieu's seemingly neutral observations about the different spirits and different laws has a specific political purpose. This can be gleaned from the opening of The Spirit of the Laws where Montesquieu urges caution on reformers, appealing to the general public to appreciate the complexity of a nation and its government. He encourages "every man to love his prince; his country, his laws." Aware of the energies of the rising commercial class— especially in England—he argued that reform would best achieve its goal in France if gradual and in conformity with the general character and habits of the country.

Any attempt at a radical leap from the human imagination to the actual political and social reality will not succeed. One model society provided Montesquieu with the benchmark he most esteemed: the most politically civilized country of the period, increasingly liberal England. The argument of The Spirit of the Laws was that France should follow England's lead. For it was England that was the most prosperous, most free, most tolerant nation, and had the most advanced form of government.

England had achieved a blend of the monarchical, aristocratic, and republican virtues through the evolution of its constitutional system and through long periods of struggle, compromise and institutional devolution. Montesquieu believed England's institutions combined the republican virtues of equality and consistency in the rule of law, with the aristocratic virtue of moderation, and the monarchical virtues of ambition and honor. But because of the power of the House of Commons, republican virtues will dominate. In France, on the other hand, there was a dangerous gap between social and political power, and the centralization of political

power in the monarch only contributed to retarding the general prosperity of the nation.

Montesquieu's deep appreciation of the political trade–offs brought about by social conflict underpinned his major contribution to political theory. Montesquieu provided an understanding of constitutionality based upon the separation of powers that was to be integral to the American liberal democracy.

Montesquieu transformed what looked like a description of the English constitution, into an argument for making the British model of government the benchmark for judging other models. Montesquieu's English model may work in other parts of the globe provided that the ethos of the people is effected by the experiences of trade and commerce. Montesquieu believed that there was a strong correlation between the spirit of liberty and trade.

What Montesquieu esteemed, was a real entity, which has a real history. If people want liberty, religious tolerance, and prosperity then they should follow the English model. English political experience may have created the series of lucky accidents that gave birth to the model, but others may be able to learn from those accidents. Montesquieu knew that disregard for liberty could occur under any system of government and that republics were not immune from this.

Liberty was defended by Montesquieu in his doctrine of the "separation of powers." Montesquieu's argument for a mixed constitution evolved because he thought deeply about the links between the social and the political, and about the benefits that would flow from necessary compromises. He was a social scientist in an era when science and rationality achieved unprecedented acclaim—during the Enlightenment.

Jean–Jacques Rousseau

A leading French critic of the ancien regime, Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was an idealist democrat whose major contribution was locating the source of constitutionality in "the general will." In him the possibility of the separation of liberal from democratic theory emerges. The French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) paid tribute to Rousseau: "The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to concur in prison or through the representatives in its formation. It must be the same for all whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it."

But although Rousseau's genius located the general will, the cost for this great insight was that the political reality of different, often competing interests is avoided. Politics was reduced to the morality of a single moral principle which enabled its adherent to dismiss as illegitimate the entire historical experience of nations which contained competing interests. Civilization had been built on false and pernicious foundations—private property and self–interest. With Rousseau begins in earnest the disastrous attempt to use political means to attain a vague form of social freedom which is supposed to be in tune with both human nature and our moral conscience, based on a common will.

The Rousseauian political agenda was then built around exchanging tangible partial liberties for general intangible ones. In place of the private happiness that comes from pursuing one's own interests, which liberals came to support, one should, for Rousseau, take one's place within the community's pursuit of the general will. Rousseau's appeal derived from nostalgic and idyllic sentiments, which he expresses so forcefully. But Rousseau turns these sentiments into a mood of great despair: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

Rousseau endorsed a politics in which the sovereignty of the people has no restraint. The use of the general will totally politicizes community experience. The purpose of the community becomes political existence itself, a far cry from Locke's notion of politics as a necessary means for our own ends. This endorsed collective totalitarianism from the Terror to Stalin. In the "general will," Rousseau helped create that formulation of democracy, which eventually could give it a fascist, communistic and wholly illiberal character.

The Philosophy and Theory of Classical Liberalism

In the year of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, Adam Smith (1723–1790) published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and founded the science of political economy. Its basic doctrine was that human labor is the only source of a nation's wealth. Smith advocated (and observed) the division of labor in the productive process, stressed the importance of individual enterprise and argued the benefits of free trade between countries. The true wealth of a nation, he held, lay not in the possession of gold but in the achievement of abundance. He warned against unnecessary intervention by the state in this process. In these conclusions, he was in part recommending the path which Britain was already undertaking, as it embarked, during his lifetime, on the world's first industrial revolution.

He is also commonly associated with the notion of the "invisible hand" which, operating through the self–interest of each individual and untrammeled by state regulation, would produce the general welfare of economic growth, development and prosperity.

Smith argued that wherever government went beyond protecting personal liberty and property it inhibited economic development. He saw in many places poverty attributable to state interference and believed the only sources of wealth and prosperity were industry and the natural powers of production of men. He concluded what was required was to leave economics to itself, since there was harmony between individual and public interests, and that the natural pursuit of economic interests would produce the greatest prosperity. Smith included in political economy not only trade, exchange and production but also political institutions and laws.

Smith appears to point to unrestricted liberty as the best principle of political economy. But he speaks also of "the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security," as the cause of national wealth and prosperity.

As the British state emerged in 1815 as the most powerful in the world, so Smith and the theories of liberal political economy which he had founded, were deployed to reform its political and economic structures. By the 1830s those who had become known at first as radicals, like Richard Cobden (1804–1865), and then later the more establishment Liberals under Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809–1898), pursued the idea of the laissez–faire state. The liberal economic regime, suggested by Smith, had not only become the model which Britain provided for the world, but a design to which it aspired.

Jeremy Bentham

The ancien regime in France had led to revolution, popular democracy, mob rule, and then military expansion under the Napoleon. England emerged victorious in 1815 as a wealthy, industrial and powerful country with an aristocratic system of government. Agitation for liberalization and democratization quickly emerged with the peace. Several prominent philosophers were influential in spreading the ideas which were to underpin the resulting creation of mid–nineteenth century, liberal England.

If Smith developed the idea that economic prosperity depended on the pursuit of self–interest and the operation of the "invisible hand," it was left to others to divine the purpose of the state. Jeremy Bentham published anonymously, also in 1776, A Fragment on Government, in which he formulated his celebrated utilitarian principle, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." By it exclusively he would judge the value of juridical, political, social, ethical, and religious systems and institutions. In 1779 Bentham's chief work, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, appeared.

After 1815, Bentham's writings and ideas became widely influential. In England, his ideas of political reform were taken up by the leaders of emerging radical liberalism. Bentham attacked the Established Church and applied the utilitarian test to religion. In ethics, Bentham maintained happiness was the sole end of conduct and reduced moral obligation to the sanction inherent in the pleasant or painful results of action. The spread of his ideas contributed to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the parliamentary reform Act of 1832 extending the franchise to the middle class.

Bentham was also the founder of the concept of "utility" in economics, defining it as private happiness, the modern economic usage. He associated man's pursuit of happiness as a matter of the incentives provided by the balancing of pain and pleasure, prices and wages. The reforms Bentham pursued were directed towards good government, abundance, security and equality. He followed Adam Smith as part of the search for abundance, but advocated a state which provided guaranteed employment, minimum wages

and a variety of social benefits. Much of his influence on ideas and legislation was through a circle of pupils and disciples, amongst whom were many economists, including David Ricardo (1772–1823) and John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill

Like Tocqueville, Mill witnessed a social and political transformation that was without any historical parallel: the synthesis of the continuing triumph of liberal principles and the industrial revolution, with the expanding social power and political mobilization of the lower classes. Like Tocqueville, Mill also saw that the modern liberal democratic state could not adequately be described as having a mixed constitution. Ultimately, in any state there was one sovereign power, and in a democratic state it must be the people. Whereas Montesquieu saw the monarchy and House of Lords as still representing considerable social power, Mill no longer saw this as necessary. The burning issues of the day, for Mill, were how exactly the will of the people was to be constituted, and then how it was to be channeled for the greatest political good.

The question of what constituted the greatest good, for Mill, was addressed in the most important defense of liberal principles since Locke. In that work, On Liberty (1869), Mill focused upon what Tocqueville had seen as the greatest single benefit that democracy had conferred upon the social character of America, a prodigious energy. For Mill, the primary purpose of politics is to unleash the energies of the species. Liberty takes on supreme importance for Mill because it energizes those who act in accordance with it. Liberty, then, is not simply an end in itself, as it is for Kant. Liberty is valuable because it is useful.

Intrinsic to the development of liberty, for Mill, is the expression of one's wants and the willingness to involve oneself in the interests of the nation. Unless one does this, one's liberty will inevitably be curbed by circumstances that are imposed by interests that have emerged from another group. Mill does not believe that politics is just about the expression of self–interest, partly because he sees the very concept of "self–interest" as unclear. Further, unless a group participates in the decisions which concern it, it is not developing the energies required for its own growth.


John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill, friend and disciple of Jeremy Bentham, and was taught Greek, Latin, mathematics, philosophy, and economics intensively from a very early age by his father in London. Young John did not go to school or associate with other boys of his age. Mill gave a vivid and moving account of his life, and especially of his peculiar education, in the Autobiography, posthumously published in 1873, that he wrote toward the end of his life.

Mill's father then got him a comfortable job at the India Office where he worked for thirty–five years while producing an enormous published output. As a result, despite an extremely cloistered life, he became one of the most influential of Victorian liberal thinkers, on philosophy, economics and politics. In the 1830s he edited the London and Westminster Review, a radical liberal quarterly journal.

At first, like his father, Mills was a utilitarian. Then, after a severe mental crisis in 1826–1827, he became more romantic and wrote about poetry and its importance. He was, shortly thereafter, influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor, who co–authored extensively with him before and after the death of her first husband. John and Harriet were married in 1851. Mills then moved towards humanism and idealism.

He also, later on, became somewhat sympathetic to socialism. He was a strong advocate of women's rights, including the franchise, and supported proportional representation, labor unions, and farm co–operatives. But principally, he was a defender of individual liberty against the interference of both society and state.

Mills was a Liberal member of parliament for Westminster from 1865 to 1868, where he advocated women's suffrage, the interests of the laboring classes, and land reform in Ireland. However, he made little impact on the Parliament.

As a philosopher, Mill was technically competent, but no pathbreaker. His System of Logic (1843) argued that scientific method could apply to social as well as purely natural phenomena. It is now little read.

Mill is better known for Principles of Political Economy (1848), but this has also slipped closer into obscurity. He is often included in histories of economic thought as a minor disciple of Adam Smith or a lesser contemporary of David Ricardo. Nonetheless, some of his observations about the environment may deserve revival.

In politics, his essay "On Liberty" (1859) aroused controversy at the time and may now be read as a defense of the individual against middle–class conformity, a common viewpoint among intellectuals today. He argued that the state should only interfere with the conduct of individuals when so doing would prevent a greater harm to others. His Considerations on Representative Government (1861) contains numerous interesting and practical suggestions for political reform, many now implemented in different countries. His Utilitarianism (1861) is a classic defense of that view, but it is not now so widely regarded. The Subjection of Women (1869) now looks enormously prescient.

Mill saw that two major social groups had been thus far deprived of participation in popular government: the laboring class and women. For the laboring class, there was a major social transformation taking place that could create serious social problems. There was serious danger of class conflict if the state became beholden to one of the two major disputing interest groups: the wealthy classes and the laboring classes. Ideally, it would be best if these classes were to hold "about an equal number of votes in the Parliament." Mill adopted the scheme of proportional representation developed by Thomas Hare, wherein people choose between parties in a geographic location in a particular constituency and for a series of candidates from all over the country. Once a candidate has a sufficient number of votes, or quota, to be elected, the remainder for him go to second candidate until he gets a quota, and so on to the third and subsequent candidates until the places are exhausted. Mill believed that this approach would guarantee diversity of representation, and indeed variations of this system have been successfully utilized in Australia.

The second proposal that Mill had for moderating against the danger of self–interest submerging the national interest, was the provision of education for all classes. Mill believed that education was indispensable for the viability of popular government. If one could not read, write, or do simple arithmetic then one is incapable, for Mill, of participating in the political process. He even suggested that voters should be asked to a copy a sentence out of a book and do a simple math exercise. The key to good government, for Mill, lay in combining energy and intelligence. He even proposed that voters who had achieved a certain level of education be granted more votes, and that a second chamber be created on a meritocratic basis (selected by intellect).

Mill invoked the principle of no representation without financial contribution. Bankrupts and those who are dependent upon charity or state welfare for their livelihood should be excluded from the suffrage. Those who introduce new taxation, suggested Mill, must also feel the effect of it. Mill well knew that public goods come at a price and that one group may be happy for another group to pay the bill, just as one generation may want the successor generation to pick up the tab for its enjoyments.

Mill is an important figure in history because his large body of wide ranging works were persuasively, logically, and factually argued; because he made a synthesis of the various strands of pre–liberal thought into a more coherent modern form of liberalism; and because he stated the case for a liberal democracy just as that kind of society was, for the first time, coming into existence in Britain and the United States.

Liberals and Women's Rights

One group for whom the franchise was becoming an issue were women. Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 B.C.) thought women capable of having a

political input and argued that women should be included in the guardian class. Aristotle, however, had defended the more traditional view of women as incapable of making any contribution to political life. This view was pretty much the standard philosophical view of women in the Middle Ages, although Descartes had to a minor extent broken with this tradition. But generally, even the more radical democratic spirits did not desire political power for women— Spinoza rejected the idea and while Locke vigorously argued against paternalism, within the family he believed that it was natural that the male should rule, and by implication political power should fall to him. Even Rousseau, while working for the removal of man's chains, had in Emily sought to ensure that women's role remained divorced from politics.

The exceptions were Marie Jean Condorcet (1743–1794), Jeremy Bentham, and the woman usually credited as the first to write a sustained treatise for the emancipation of women, Mary Wolstonecraft (1759–1797).

Condorcet in "On Granting Civil Rights to Women" (1790), compared the situations of Blacks and women, attacked their maltreatment and the institutional discrimination that they had to endure. He insisted that reason was universal, and that women could not be denied their rightful status as rational beings. Condorcet argued in Five Memoirs of Education that women should be educated just as men are, an issue that Daniel Defoe had raised almost a hundred years earlier, and the historian, Catherine Macaulay, also advocated in her Letters on Education (1790). Condorcet's argument for women having civil rights was consistent in its advocacy that such rights should also be accompanied by political rights, provided the property qualifications for the vote were also met.

Jeremy Bentham was also an advocate for women's rights. In an unpublished manuscript of 1789 he objected to equating women with infants and the insane for the purpose of excluding them from the vote. In a number of published works, including Catechism of a Parliamentary Reform (1809), the Radical Reform Bill (1819), and the Constitutional Code, he argued for extending educational and political opportunities to women.

In Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1795), Mary Wolstonecraft emphasized the absurd contradiction between Rousseau's conception of rights, which she largely accepted, and the subordinate role of women, which he advocated. For Wolstonecraft, the inferior economic, political and moral circumstance of woman was the result of socialization not her nature. For her, the transformation of women's role was largely a matter of education. Women needed to acquire new skills so that they would possess the necessary virtues for independence and participation in public life.

Mill's views When Mill wrote his The Subjection of Women, the idea of gender emancipation was already current. There also existed a movement for the female suffrage, although it was nowhere near as strong as the trade union movement and the push for political power then being made by the working class. But, for Mill, the circumstance of the denial of women's rights was not equivalent to other situations. The circumstance of women was different from any other social group and this largely explained the complicity by women in their own lack of political power. Further, Mill believes, the nature of women has been more thoroughly distorted through their relationships than any other social group, including slaves. The duties of women, Mill says, have been stretched beyond that of slaves: "no slave is a slave to same lengths and in so full a sense as a wife is. Hardly any slave, except one immediately attached to his master's person, is a slave at all hours and minutes of the day." Even a slave is not under obligation as a wife to sleep with a master who degrades and tortures her.

But a growing number of women were by then demanding political representation. It was understandable, for Mill, that this movement was not supported by huge numbers, in light of the power relations between the sexes. He added that, "It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise. There is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands." For Mill, the value of liberty is bound up with the unleashing of energies and talents. Mill's plea for the emancipation of women is made within the context of a general theory of liberty and political representation, the theory of liberalism.

Mill saw the enfranchisement of the laboring classes and of women as indicative of the general progress of humanity in its political institutions. He also believed that such a change in the balance of political expression would have a generally benign effect on the social circumstance of the groups represented as well as the society as a whole. Closely related, was his belief that human progress was generated through discontent with the existing order. Each new group who had been through the process of demanding their liberty and articulating their moral discontents were entering into the creative task that lay before the species: its collective intellectual, moral and material improvement. The spirit of liberty was, for Mill, a restless one, but its very restlessness was indicative of the energizing character of human freedom.

Mill sat between those liberals who wanted to expand the powers of the state to help achieve greater liberty for the disadvantaged, and those who saw that any such attempt would drag liberalism into the sphere of socialism, and that the emphasis upon social equality would have harmful effects for individual liberty and social prosperity. Both groups saw Mill's form of liberalism as unsatisfactory: the former because Mill did not provide enough for the state to play a more directive role in opening up the conditions of liberty; the latter because Mill was veering too close to paternalism, straying too far from his belief in the importance of the energies of the individual. This is a central dilemma for modern liberals.

The achievement of the franchise for the working classes and women meant that for the first time in human history all interests had been accepted as, in principle, having a legitimate right to representation in the politics of the state. Because this was a new situation it took some time for it to become clear what form this mass representation would assume. Since this political transformation took place almost everywhere in the advanced states at about the same time as the maturation of the process of industrialization, the two combined to take the form of a social democratic program that shared common features in the different states. The risk entailed for advanced liberal states now became not that the interests of the masses would be ignored, but that their excessive pursuit could destroy the march of progress altogether as the state encroached excessively on the domains of civil society.


Gladstone and the Liberal Party in Britain

William Ewart Gladstone became the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1868. At that time, there was much unrest in among the Irish people over their role in the commonwealth. The Act of Union in 1801 had religiously bound Ireland to the Protestant Church of England, a fact that caused tension among Irish Roman Catholics for generations.

Gladstone introduced and passed the Disestablishment Act in 1869, which repealed the Act of Union and allowed the Irish the freedom to support whichever church they chose. Gladstone also introduced a land act in 1870 which provided compensation for Irish tenants who were evicted by English landlords without cause.

Gladstone's ministry enacted a host of measures which, as he put it, opened the windows of opportunity for Englishmen. These measures included the Education Act of 1870, the opening of all branches of the civil service except the foreign service to competitive examination in 1870, the abolition of purchase of commissions in the army by royal warrant and the opening of the universities to non–members of the Church of England in 1871, and the secret ballot act of 1872. The same degree of support was not given to all these measures by Gladstone, but the fact simply serves to illustrate his view of the role of prime minister, which was to act as mediator between factions in the cabinet and reconcile differences where possible.

Gladstone's approach to foreign affairs was also established in his first ministry, which came into office shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War. As a member of Parliament, Gladstone had caused some hostility in America by supporting the South in the Civil War. The North had strenuously objected when ironclads (warships with sides of armored metal plates) manufactured in Britain were delivered to the Confederates, and after the war there was a need to reestablish normal relations between the two countries. The Treaty of Washington in 1871 agreed to the U.S. request that claims for damages be submitted to arbitration. This act went a long way toward easing any tension between the two nations. Britain's destiny may well have turned out to be a very different one had it lost the United States as its most powerful ally.

An unsuccessful attempt to pass a temperance bill that came close to an act of prohibition—and trouble over the continuing Irish question—hurt Gladstone in the election of 1874, and he was defeated. However, he was reelected in 1880, and soon introduced his first Home Rule bill for Ireland, which was defeated in Parliament by thirty votes. Gladstone continued his support for the bill, and when the Liberals returned to office after the election of 1892, he introduced a second Home Rule bill the following year. The measure passed Parliament's House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Gladstone retired the following year.

Gladstone's terms as Prime Minister saw many changes come to Great Britain. The army regulation bill shifted control of the armed forces from the monarchy to Parliament; indeed, the prestige of Parliament rose during his tenure. For the first time, all schools were evaluated by the government, standards in education soared, and more people had access to government positions. However, British imperialism reached its notorious high point—the "Scramble for Africa"—during the Gladstone era.

Social Liberalism and Social Democracy

As the franchise extended in liberal societies, so the powers and functions of the state were expanded. Partly as a result of socialist agitation, the power of illiberal political factions was used to undermine the classical liberal state.

During the early part of the twentieth century, all the developed states experienced the rise of such social democratic movements. They combined a number of characteristics that sprang from the achievement of the more or less universal franchise at about the same time in industrial societies. The result was a transfer of demands from the political sphere concerning representation in the deliberations of the state, to arguments about the purposes for which the state should be used. The more common form of the expression of social democracy was a democratic electoral coalition pursuing social and economic rights to augment the political gains already won for the masses. Social democratic parties began achieving Parliamentary representation by the 1890s and thereafter social democrats began to seriously influence political agendas everywhere. The line between social liberals and social democrats became very difficult to discern.

Social democracy has few outstanding theoreticians. In the political sphere the most developed were in Britain, where the Fabian Socialists argued for more state ownership of the economy, higher taxes, and more welfare benefits by using an elected Labour government to legislate for an extension of the egalitarian principle from the political to the economic and social sphere. In Germany, similar arguments were evolved by the previously Marxist Social Democratic Party led by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. In the economic realm, the dominant social democratic theoretician was John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) who gave theoretical legitimacy to the political aspirations of the social democratic political philosophers and politicians.

Liberalism and Christianity

From the Enlightenment, reconciling the growth of secular liberalism with the continuation of Christian religious doctrine also became an important issue for theology. Eighteenth century romanticism did this by stressing the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason in which truth was gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts. This was a reaction to the critical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Influential here was Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834), a founder of modern or liberal theology. He accepted the validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Christianity, and saw religious belief as subjective. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but: "Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech."

Other liberal theologians, like Albrect Ritschl (1822–1889), saw religion in terms of personal morality. He argued in Justification and Reconciliation, that "Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion, which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God…the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind." Religious truth could not be verified and existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated.

These views led quickly to the academic study of comparative religions. Christianity was no longer seen as unique and as knowledge of the wider world and other cultures and religions became available, the Bible was studied in its cultural setting. All religions were seen as being intellectually similar and, possibly, valid.

The social gospel movement then tried to apply Christianity to industrial societies and enlist the new working class. The American Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote in A Theology of the Social Gospel that, "The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience." The task of the church was working to end human suffering and establish social justice. In the late nineteenth century even papal declarations talked about justice for labor. Liberalism made Christian authority wholly subjective, based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in the Bible or Church, but increasingly in reason and conscience.

Modernism was used to describe a similar movement within the Catholic Church. In the U.S. the term was applied to radical liberal theology in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the 1930s many other denominations were also affected. The implication was that Christianity had to be "modernized" in every age in order to remain socially and rationally relevant.

In liberal societies, religion tended to decline and become more secular in outlook.

The Neo–liberal Revolution in the 1980s

Milton Friedman (1912– ) is an intellectual descendant of the Austrian School, the best known of all "Monetarist economists" and won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1976. He was born in New York in 1912 and after working at Columbia University (and for the government), he became Professor of Economics at Chicago University. He did his best–known work there, surrounded by other Monetarists, also often termed the "Chicago school."

In the 1970s, the social democratic state, which had been steadily encroaching on the liberal economy throughout the developed world, created, with other developments, the crisis of "stagflation." In this, it experienced a devaluation of the currency and a cessation of economic growth more or less simultaneously. In this critical context, the ideas of classical liberal political economy were revived in the intellectual sphere and implemented by a series of liberal politicians operating through the agencies of the powerful liberal states which they governed.

This neo–liberal counter–revolution in the realm of economic ideas is most closely associated with Friedman. Although prolific, his best known popular work was, with Rose D. Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962). He was already an advocate of market economics and paying closer attention to the growth of the money supply, when the crisis of stagflation occurred in the mid–1970s. He then proved to be an able media performer and had an impact far beyond the academy, as his Nobel Prize attested.

Friedman argued that Keynesian demand management techniques had gone too far in distorting the market and had choked economic growth; that the growth of the money supply had generated inflation; and that the increased size of the state had become a political burden on developed countries. He advocated reducing state intervention in the economy, controlling the growth of the money supply and de–politicizing the economy. This message had an impact in all developed countries, but more in some than others. It was essentially the message of classical liberal political economy.

The Political Liberal Revival

Friedman's ideas first began to take hold among policy makers in the years 1974–1975 when the developed countries experienced both stagnation and inflation. But the first major politician to take liberal ideas seriously, and not merely as a short–term solution to the stagflation crisis, was Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain from 1979–1990.

Britain had developed an extensive welfare state and state owned sector of the economy in the hay day of social democracy, 1945–1975. It also had one of the worst records of economic growth of developed countries. In the mid 1970s, under a Labour government, it encountered a severe crisis of stagflation. The opposition Conservative Party at first espoused similar policies under its centrist leader, Edward Heath. Margaret Thatcher then replaced him and won the 1979 election on a radical liberal/monetarist platform. During the next decade she reduced the state sector, cut the welfare state and reined in the money supply. The result was a radically re–structured British economy and society along more liberal lines.

The pain involved in this transition was considerable, but under pressure to relent, Thatcher famously insisted, "This Lady is not for turning." Britain emerged as one of Europe's stronger economies in the 1990s and the next Labour government, elected in 1997, did not reverse the liberal reforms.

As the Cold War and communism ended in 1991, this liberal impetus was sustained in the U.S. by Bill Clinton, U.S. President 1993–2001, who, although a Democrat, led the international economy into a period of globalization. As David Mosler and Bob Catley describe in Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World, this represented the apogee of liberal sentiment and a new attempt to recreate a global political economy along the lines attempted by liberal England in the mid–nineteenth century.

Clinton was elected on a reforming and welfare expanding policy and only swung away from social democracy after a considerable electoral defeat in the 1994 mid–term Congressional elections. Thereafter, he eschewed expanding the state sector and, rather, set about creating a free trading global economy in which American prosperity could be built on the strength of its industry. By the time of his second term he was dissolving the automatic entitlement to welfare, which had been established for Americans after the New Deal, and was concentrating on the strengthening of a global world order of liberalism.

During this period, world trade expanded rapidly, global production levels also increased, income levels for U.S. citizens were enhanced and the number of liberal democratic states increased. From being an advocate of social democratic reform, Clinton became the heir of the liberal tradition and its courier into the twenty–first century.


Liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value, and liberals have typically maintained, with Locke, that humans are naturally in "a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions." Restrictions on liberty must be thoroughly justified, hence John Rawls' first principle of justice: "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system for all."

Liberals disagree, however, about the concept of liberty. Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) arguably the twentieth century's most eminent liberal, advocated in Four Essays on Liberty (1969) for a "negative conception of liberty." For Berlin the liberal state's commitment to protecting liberty is, essentially, the job of ensuring that citizens do not coerce each other without compelling justification. Other liberals emphasize positive freedom and want a larger role for the liberal state.

At the start of the twenty–first century this revolved around the "political correctness" debate. Is it permissible to restrict the freedom of speech of some citizens in order to impose the definition of freedom espoused by others? The classical liberal would surely respond in the negative.

Liberalism, Property, and the Market

For classical liberals, liberty and private property are related, but "social" liberalism challenges this close connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order. Modern social liberals, especially in the U.S., believe that far from being "the guardian of every other right," as James Ely argued in The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights (1992), property rights generate an inequality. This theme is central to contemporary American liberalism, which combines strong endorsement of civil and personal liberties with little enthusiasm for private ownership.

There are several states which function effectively at the onset of the twenty–first century that are based on the principles of liberalism. The two most prominent examples are the U.S. and the United Kingdom, particularly after both undertook extensive liberal reforms in the 1980s. The U.S. has only about thirty percent of the economy going through the state sector and maintains an open economy and strict separation of political powers. Britain has reduced the state share of the economy and privatized most of the state owned enterprises that the Labour Party had previously brought into public ownership. After a similar process of liberal reform in the 1980s, which has been sustained under the Liberal led government, Australia may be regarded as a successful liberal society with a constitution drawn from both London and Washington.

France and most European Union states may be better regarded as social democratic societies because their state sectors are over forty percent of their total economy, a proportion which most liberals would regard as excessive. New Zealand also falls into this category.

There are number of other states which have some of the attributes of liberalism but do not function well. Legally and formally, Russia has a liberal constitution and economy, but in fact it functions as an oligarchy, both politically and economically. Japan has a liberal political constitution, but has been ruled since 1950 effectively by one governing coalition except for 1993–1994. Also, its state has considerable control over its economy and this has contributed to the condition of economic stagnation which has prevailed since 1990.

Liberalism's Influence and Critics

Liberalism is unique in that while it may not have ever been truly implemented as a political system in any country, it has influenced many political systems in many different eras. It is much more than coincidence that on the timeline between the absolute kings and queens of the seventeenth century and the representative governments of today sit a large number of brilliant liberal thinkers who called for the limiting the power of the monarchy. Moreover, it was liberal ideas that toned down the evils of imperialism by calling for the teachings of Christianity and an end to the slave trade. And although Mill's views on the rights of women fell short of equality, they were nonetheless far ahead of their time, and inspired many who carried on the fight for women's suffrage. Nineteenth– century liberals instituted reforms in education and sought to improve working conditions. Some historians even feel that liberalism had a profound effect on the arts and culture by their very doctrine of challenging traditional themes. Liberals moved away from war and religion to a more peaceful, secular world view.

That is not to say that liberalism does not have its critics. Socialists and communists criticize liberals for defending capitalism. Democrats generally support liberalism, but are wary of the limitations it places on the power of government. Social democrats and supporters of Keynes believe liberalism places too much confidence in market economics. Statist economic developers think liberalism cannot deliver rapid economic growth. Fascists believe liberalism is too soft a belief with which to defend the civilized order. Post–modernists believe liberalism to be the doctrines of "dead white males." And conservative critics have argued that the historical stability of liberal societies is based on a pre–liberal sense of shared identity amongst their members; liberalism only works in already well–ordered societies.

Liberalism is a set of beliefs about society, politics, and economics that developed, uniquely, in the most–developed countries of the world by the late–eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has proven to be successful in the wealthy English–speaking countries and has provided a foundation for their continuing prosperity and liberty.

Nonetheless, it has proven difficult to transplant to other societies and its critics claim that liberalism only functions effectively in societies that have nurtured liberties and energies consistent with liberal principles for several generations. Not all nations may be ready for liberalism; those that are believe it is the most advanced way to run a country.


  • Why was Rousseau's idea of the "general will" illiberal?
  • Examine the attempts Gladstone made to settle the "Irish Question" and the effects of those policies.
  • Explain Hayek's criticism of socialism and how it pertains to liberalism.



Catley, Bob A. and Wayne Christaudo. This Great Beast: Progress and the Modern State. London: Avebury, 1997.

Commire, Anne, ed. Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Freeden, Michael. The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Gilbert, Felix, gen. ed. The Norton History of Modern Europe. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1971.

Harris, Paul and John Morrow, eds. Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Hayek, F.A. New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas,, 1993. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Mosler, David, and Bob Catley. Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World, Praeger, 2000.

Smith, Rogers M. "Unfinished Liberalism," in Social Research. Fall, 1994 (vol. 61, no. 3).

Further Readings

Benn, Stanley I. A Theory of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988. A powerful statement of the case for using the state to create positive liberty.

Cranston, Maurice. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, ed., Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967. Cranston's essay "Liberalism" is a classic statement of the history and evolution of liberal doctrines.

Green, Thomas Hill. Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Essays, Paul Harris and John Morrow, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1986. Green's 1895 essay is the original statement of the social liberal position of the need for a liberal state to provide positive freedoms for its citizens.

Hayek, F.A. New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978. Hayek's essay "Liberalism" is a re–statement of classic liberal doctrine in the late–twentieth century context when liberalism was re–emerging as a dominant doctrine in the developed countries.

Mill, John Stuart On Liberty and Other Essays, John Gray, ed., Oxford University Press, 1991. This collection of 1859 essays contains many of the key statements by the most influential English liberal theorist of the nineteenth century.


Capitalism, Conservatism, Federalism


views updated May 29 2018


It is widely agreed that fundamental to liberalism is a concern to protect and promote individual liberty. This means that individuals can decide for themselves what to do or believe with respect to particular areas of human activity such as religion or economics. The contrast is with a society in which the society decides what the individual is to do or believe. In those areas of a society in which individual liberty prevails, social outcomes will be the result of a myriad of individual decisions taken by individuals for themselves or in voluntary cooperation with some others.

Liberalism in the political sphere cannot be a simple application of individual liberty, because decisions have to be taken collectively and are binding on all. Political liberalism means, first, that individual citizens are free to vote for representatives of their choice and to form voluntary associations to promote their ideas and interests in the realm of collective decision-making. Second, it means the adoption of constitutional procedures for limiting government power and making it accountable to the citizens.

Liberal Practice

In discussing liberalism, it is important to distinguish between liberal practices and liberal theories. Liberal practices are those institutional and customary arrangements that support individual liberty. Of prime importance are individual legal rights to engage in certain activities such as to practice the religion of one's choice, to use one's property and labor as one pleases, and to enjoy freedom of opinion, expression, association, and movement. Political rights and constitutional procedures designed to put limits on government power, such as the independence of the judiciary, the separation of legislative and executive power, freedom of the press, and electoral accountability, are liberal practices insofar as they are designed to protect or express individual liberty.

Individual nonpolitical rights are necessarily limited by the equal rights of others. A religion or other association, or a use of property, that violates the rights of others, cannot be protected. Individual rights may also be limited by consideration of the public good, such as limits on public meetings that will produce disorder. A liberal account of such public-good constraints must limit them to whatever arrangements are necessary to protect a liberal society.

In talking about individual rights, it is essential to note, in order to understand liberalism, that the liberal individual is a human being not otherwise differentiated by status, class, race, religion, or gender. This formulation describes an idealimplicit in liberalism and eventually standardly affirmedrather than the actual practice of liberalism as it originally developed. With respect to the latter, many individual rights were variously restricted in different countries: universally at first to men, in America to white men. Nevertheless, the standard justifications for the exclusions were the incapacity of the excluded class of human beings to make effective use of the liberal freedoms or their existence as a threat to the established liberal order. In this way, it was still possible to say that all human beings capable of freedom and not threatening public order were entitled to rights.

As the practice of particular societies, liberal individual rights, although proclaimed as the rights of human beings, would be restricted to members of that society and to resident aliens only under the developing provisions of international law. The standard justification for such limitations was that the rights could be given practical effectiveness only through the legal and political systems of particular states. Liberal practices emerged in the states of northern Europe and North America in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and contributed substantially to their dynamic international power through the early twenty-first century despite the life-threatening challenges to them in the twentieth century by the fascist and communist powers. The liberal societies of the West, above all the United States, have given liberalism as a practice and a theory a dominant status in the contemporary world.

While the aforementioned legal and institutional arrangements are important for the constitution of a liberal society, they are not enough. A fully liberal society requires a tolerant public opinion as well. This is one of the main points of John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty (1859), in which he seeks to defend individuality and difference from the coercive pressure of public opinion.

Liberalism as a social practice is a matter of degree along three dimensions. First, a society may be more or less liberal according to how many aspects of its life are governed by the principle of individual liberty. A society may be very liberal in matters of belief but illiberal in the economic and/or the political sphere or conversely. It may be liberal in all these areas but illiberal with regard to sexual conduct. Second, a society may be more or less liberal with regard to each of these spheres. It may allow only a limited degree of economic freedom or a limited degree of freedom of belief. Finally, a society may be more or less inclusive of its adult population in the scope of the liberal freedoms.

Liberal Theories

Liberal theories are theories designed to show that the liberal organization of society is the best for human beings with regard to their fundamental nature and interests. The Western intellectual tradition includes several discourses of major importance that have this aim. It is widely held that the principles of liberalism can be traced back to the seventeenth-century natural rights and social contract theorists who attach primary significance in just interaction between persons to an equal individual liberty and who derive the constraints of organized society from an agreement by individuals to submit to such constraints for the sake of the protection of their liberty and other natural rights.

A radically different type of liberal theory, which was very scornful of the idea of natural rights, was the utilitarian one. This flourished in the nineteenth century, particularly in Great Britain, and remains influential in English-speaking countries. This theory holds that the best organization of society is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility or happiness, taking equally into account every individual's utility. Such a theory is liberal only insofar as it argues, as the classic British utilitarians did, that the liberal order of society would best satisfy the utilitarian principle.

The theory that has been most influential in liberal thought on the continent of Europe and also on contemporary thought in English-speaking countries is that of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and German idealism. This theory seeks to provide a rational deduction of the natural rights principle of equal individual liberty from human beings' capacity for autonomy, which is understood as a capacity to govern one's conduct by laws or principles that one freely imposes on oneself.

Modern Western political theory from the seventeenth century is largely dominated by liberal ideas. Even thinkers who have been thought to be fundamentally illiberal, such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Edmund Burke (17291797), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) are really illiberal, if at all, only in regard to the state and not in regard to society. A liberal society may, thus, be supported on very different theoretical bases within Western thought, including religious ones. Indeed, the dominant status of liberalism in the contemporary world, together with the high importance attached to recognizing the equal worth of non-Western cultures, has led to many attempts to construct support for liberal practices from within religious systems of belief. Thus, there exist forms of liberalism that can be called Confucian, Islamic, and Buddhist.

The Historical Development of the Liberal Idea

From the discussion of liberalism above, one might assume that the term itself came into use in seventeenth-century northern Europe. In fact the term liberal was first used in connection with politics in Spain in the early nineteenth century to describe a political movement whose object was to establish constitutional constraints on government power. The term rapidly came to be applied to movements and ideas aimed at promoting individual liberty of choice, and it is now generally considered reasonable to use the term retrospectively to describe thinkers such as John Locke (16321704), Adam Smith (17231790), and many others whose thought exhibited this character.

Natural rights theories.

As claimed earlier, liberalism was nurtured in the natural rights doctrines of the seventeenth century. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius (15831645) is widely held to be the main innovator of the modern doctrine, and his mode of theorizing, involving the idea of a prepolitical state of nature and a social contract as the ground for political society, was taken up and given major formulations by Hobbes and Locke in England and Benedictus de Spinoza (16321677) and Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694) on the European continent. The reason for holding these theories to be the ground in which liberalism grew is that they start with a presumption in favor of individual liberty and limit liberty only to protect the equal rights of others or to provide the public order considered necessary to secure everyone's liberty to the greatest extent. These theorists refer to other natural rights besides liberty, as in Locke's classic formulation of rights to life, liberty, health, and possessions. All these rights, however, are to be understood as negative in character. The rights to life and health are rights not to be deprived of one's life or health by the actions of others and are thus rights to go about one's business as one thinks fit without being killed or injured. The right to possessions is again a negative right not to be hindered in the exercise of one's liberty to acquire possessions in order to preserve and enhance one's life. Furthermore, all individuals are held to have the natural right to govern themselves in accordance with their own judgment of their entitlements under natural law.

All these theorists recognize that constraints on individual liberty are necessary if people are to enjoy the maximum of equal liberty in a peaceful society, so it is rational for them to agree to establish a political society on the basis of their natural interests in liberty. This is a new and essentially liberal mode of thinking about a just society, because the aim is to leave people as free as possible to form their own lives as they think fit compatibly with a peaceful and orderly society. The contrast is with conceptions of just order that are based on a substantive conception of the good. In the latter view, one starts with a conception of how human beings should live in order to achieve the good life, such as that of Plato, and then organizes society politically to enable its members to realize this end. Individual liberty, in such a view, is only what is left over after the structure of the good life is in place.

The natural rights theorists explicitly adopted the primacy of liberty conception because they were especially impressed by the quarrelsome nature of human beings and by the devastating consequences of the contemporary disputes over religion involving Protestants and Catholics and the skepticism about the good that could thereby be engendered. These theorists' aim, therefore, was to construct a minimal social ethics that all could agree on while leaving as much room as possible for each to decide for him-or herself what to believe and how to live. Of course, it is always possible to say that the liberal view of just interaction still involves a conception of the good life, namely one of maximum equal liberty. But this is a very thin conception of the good that leaves people as free as possible to make their own choices.

The natural rights theorists developed the central ideas of a liberal society. Their politics, however, was in many cases far from being liberal. Despite the grounding of political society in a social contract and thus apparently basing it on the consent of all, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf defended absolute monarchy, while Locke and Spinoza restricted political rights to property owners. A crucial argument of the absolutists was that, although the ruler's authority was based on a contract, the contract necessarily involved the surrender by the contractors of their natural right to interpret the natural law for themselves to the sovereign whose judgment could not subsequently be questioned without undermining political society itself and returning everyone to a lawless state of nature. It is for this reason that Hobbes, and later the conservative thinker Burke, can appear to be so illiberal. Although they do not deny that human beings have natural interests in an equal liberty and that sovereigns are well advised to respect that liberty, sovereigns cannot be held to account for not respecting it. Hence, their subjects' enjoyment of their liberties can only be at the discretion of the ruler or the political traditions of the society.

The partial political liberalism of Locke is presented as an attack on the absolutists and consists of making the government responsible to the property owners who are taxed to support it and who are held to be the more rational members of society; and additionally an embryonic version of the idea of the separation of government powers in different hands. Nevertheless, absolute sovereignty still lurks in Locke's theory insofar as citizens who are aggrieved at the actions of a legitimately constituted government have to appeal to the members of political society as a whole whose decision, in principle by majority will, is presented as necessarily binding. Thus, Locke's political theory contains an unelaborated majoritarian democratic principle that could be and was seized on by more radical thinkers and movements concerned to develop the egalitarian implications of liberal rights to promote political democracy.

Rousseau can be understood as one of these radical egalitarian Lockean thinkers in some respects, and his theory was very influential in inspiring the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century. But Rousseau is rarely regarded as a liberal. This is largely because his theory of the general will and his belief in direct rather than representative democracy were seen, especially in the light of the actions of the French revolutionaries and through the criticism of the early-nineteenth-century French liberal thinker Benjamin Constant, as wholly antipathetic to individual liberty. He is said to identify liberty with participation in collective decision-making rather than individual choice. However, this is to misunderstand the general will. The general will is supposed to be aimed inherently at securing laws that equally protect the individual liberty of all. Insofar as it is a collective will through participation in which all persons equally impose general laws with a liberal character on themselves and others, its collective nature and positive conception of freedom is merely the necessary political element in a self-governing liberal society.

Rousseau does depart radically from the economic liberalism implicit or explicit in most natural rights theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Rousseau the equality element in the doctrine of equal rights requires a rough equality of all as property owners and an opposition to capitalist ownership and market society. Because the foundational liberal principle affirms both the equality and liberty of all, Rousseau's interpretation of it would seem to be a possible one while its egalitarian commitments have become more and more influential.

Other notable figures in the democratic development natural rights theory are Thomas Paine (17431809) and the Marquis of Condorcet (17431794). They played noteworthy parts in the political revolutions that transformed America and France at the end of the eighteenth century and produced important theoretical works justifying a liberal-democratic order.

Utility-based liberalism.

Rights-based liberalism has two apparent weaknesses: It is not clear where the natural rights come from, and no principled account of conflicts involving rights is given or seems to be possible. Utilitarian-based liberalism offers a single solution to both. The principle of utility, which tells moral agents to do those acts that will produce the greatest amount of utility, is interpreted by the great liberal utilitarians to mean that one should act to bring about a society in which individuals enjoy the standard liberal rights enumerated earlier in this entry. At the same time what to do when rights conflict is to be settled by appeal to the principle of utility, which establishes a suitable hierarchy of rights in such cases.

The most important liberal utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and Mill. To get a defense of liberalism from the principle of utility, Bentham adopts a number of secondary principles reflecting the fundamental interests of individuals. One of these is that individuals are the best judges of their own interests. So, there must be a presumption on the part of government that social outcomes will be better if individuals are left as free as possible to decide for themselves what to believe and do. His other secondary principles were those of security (or liberty), subsistence, abundance, and equality. Security of person and property involves the protection of people's liberty while ensuring that both subsistence and the possibility of abundance are best accomplished by leaving people free economically. Equality, arising from the fact that in the utilitarian calculus each is to count for one and no one for more than one, might suggest redistribution from rich to poor were that not to conflict in an unacceptable way with the operation of the other secondary principles and so is outweighed by them.

Unlike most of his contemporary rights-based liberals, Bentham believed that the only way of ensuring that governments followed policies that best promoted the general utility rather than their own interest was to establish a representative democracy. He thought that the great majority would see that their interests lay in the institution of a liberal society and polity, a view repudiated by those partially political liberals who doubted that nonproperty owners could be trusted to support liberty because they lacked the necessary independence and rationality.

Mill introduced significant modifications to the liberal theory he inherited from Bentham. One of these is his extension of the liberty principle, which requires persons to be allowed to pursue their own good in their own way so long as they do not harm others, to cover the coercive pressure of public opinion mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the area of conduct falling within this principle includes what Mill calls experiments in living. People should be encouraged to experiment (so long as they do not harm others) in order to promote the long-term utility of the human race. Underlying these views is a belief in the fundamental importance of individuality to a person's happiness. This is the capacity to make choices for one's life that express one's own individual nature. A liberal society will be one that promotes the development in its members of this capacity. Adult human beings and whole societies will not necessarily manifest it and can benefit up to a point from the tutelage of others.

Kant and post-Kantian liberal idealism.

Kant, the deeply anti-utilitarian and still very influential German philosopher, identifies human beings' capacity for autonomy as the grounds for claiming the existence of a natural right to an equal liberty. Autonomy is the capacity to govern oneself by freely imposing rational laws on the operation of one's natural inclinations. In following one's inclinations even through rational calculation, one is bound by causal laws operating independently of one's will. One is free and self-determining only insofar as one's end is rational and self-imposed. One achieves this in willing principles that are universal and apply to everyone. In subjecting one's natural self-interested maxims of conduct to the requirement of a universal legislation for its own sake and not for any advantage, one is treating rational being in oneself and others as an end in itself and of absolute worth. The laws one wills from that perspective will be ones that could be willed by every rational human being, who is not only a rational being but also a natural one. One will then be participating as an equal colegislator in willing rational laws to govern the pursuit by each of his or her natural ends.

Among the fundamental laws such beings will legislate is one bestowing the universal right to an equal liberty. Human beings as rational beings embodied in a particular natural being are ends in themselves, and this means that their will insofar as it is rational and thereby conforms to rational universal law must not be coerced but must be left free to pursue its natural ends as it chooses. To the extent that a person's will violates the equal freedom of another, however, that will itself may be coerced, and in order to ensure the precision and effectiveness of this fundamental law, human beings must rationally will their entry into political society and their formation of a public order and sovereign will.

Kant's significance lies not so much in his working out the implications of the principle of equal liberty but in his invention of a new rational ground in autonomy for it. Contemporary liberals who still seek to provide justifications for preferring liberalism to other social and political schemes are largely either Kantians or utilitarians, with Kantians for the moment predominating.

Post-Kantian idealism, most elaborately developed by Hegel in Germany but also influential in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century through the writings of Thomas Hill Green, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet, historicizes and socializes the Kantian scheme. The general idea is that historical forms of society and the reflective philosophies that arise in them are the result of the struggle of human beings to grasp and actualize the free will inherent in their nature as rational beings. This struggle culminates in the development of a liberal civil society and a partially liberal state. A liberal self-organizing civil society in which all persons are responsible for their own life economically and socially is necessary to develop in all the idea and partial actualization of their autonomy. This society, however, can exist only within the framework of a system of legislation that is the ultimate locus of the self-determining free will of human beings through their participation in and identification with the general will of the state. This theory socializes the individualist character of the liberal philosophy, because although individuals are the beings within which free will is realized, this is achieved only through their development in and membership of liberal social forms.

Twentieth-century liberalism and the influence of Rawls.

A striking characteristic of twentieth-century political theory is its loss of belief in the possibility of finding rational foundations for moral and political prescriptions. Adherence to liberal or antiliberal principles became a matter of espousing an ideology.

Liberal practices were, nevertheless, deeply embedded in English-speaking societies but, as it turned out, less so in the societies of Continental Europe, above all Germany and Russia. In those nations, in the chaos of the aftermath of World War I and the economic misfortunes of the 1920s and 1930s, the powerful antiliberal political movements of fascism and communism seized power, destroyed the forms of liberal society, and threatened the very survival of liberalism in the Western world. The victory of the liberal states (together with the Soviet Union) in World War II led to their strong reaffirmation of the individualist values of liberalism. This was least marked in the economic sphere, where the apparent industrial success of Stalinist Russia encouraged many Western and developing states to adopt extensive policies of economic socialism in the form of the nationalization of major industries. The postwar liberal states also for the most part greatly expanded the provision of state welfare to their subjects. While such policies were contrary to the principles of classical liberalism, they were perfectly justifiable under the revision of liberal theory that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Political and moral theory remained marooned in the swamp of ideological contestation largely between liberalism and communism until the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the collapse of the other great antiliberal power in the 1980s (that is, the Soviet Union). The former generated an extraordinary revival of political theory based on the belief that Rawls had invented a new rational justification of liberalism. Rawls supposes that persons engaged in social interaction have the need and the desire to justify their actions to those affected by them and that this justification must take the form of everyone agreeing from an initially fair position to a set of cooperative principles that will then be seen to be fair. The initially fair position is one in which the contractors are understood to be free and equal personsfree because they have the capacity to form conceptions of the good and govern themselves by these conceptions, and equal because no one has any more power than another to secure favorable terms for him-or herself. The contractors would choose two principles. The first is a principle of equal liberty by which each is to have as much liberty as is compatible with a like liberty for all. This principle takes priority over the second principle, which is concerned with fair equality of opportunity and the distribution of income and wealth. With regard to the latter Rawls holds that the contractors would choose that distribution that maximizes the long-run position of the worst-off group in society. These principles are commonly taken to justify a liberal welfare state with a leaning toward egalitarian outcomes.

One of Rawls's main claims about liberalism is that it is a method of political cooperation that is neutral between different conceptions of the good. Rawls believes, as did the original natural rights theorists, that human beings differ and tend to quarrel disastrously about the good. Any attempt to establish a coercive state on the basis of a particular conception is bound to generate conflict and be unfair to those holding different conceptions because there is no way of conclusively establishing the truth of any one conception. Liberalism, as Rawls understands it, and as presented in this entry, is a way of achieving peaceful social cooperation on the basis of agreement on principles that leave people as free as is compatible with allowing a like freedom to others.

In A Theory of Justice, however, Rawls claims that the ultimate ground for accepting his liberalism is that it expresses the Kantian idea of free and equal autonomous persons cooperating together in a social order. Rawls later came to accept the criticism that to base the theory on a Kantian conception of autonomy, which some persons could reasonably reject, violated the neutrality of the scheme. So in Political Liberalism (1993) he holds that the burdens of judgment regarding the good are such that it is unreasonable to seek to impose one's own conception on others by making it the basis of the state's order. But this claim raises the question of whether the unreasonableness of imposing one's conception of the good is solely pragmatic or whether it is based on principle, and, if the latter, what that principle is if it is not the Kantian one. Taking the former view would force one to abandon the belief that Rawls has effectively countered the general twentieth-century skepticism regarding foundations.

Some Issues in Liberal Theory and Practice

Liberalism has deep internal tensions primarily between the claims of equality and those of liberty arising from its equal commitment to both these principles. The tensions are held by some thinkers who are not well-disposed towards liberalism to be contradictions that prevent liberalism from living up to its own principles. Some of these issues are discussed briefly below together with some important distinctions between types of liberalism.

Liberalism and cultural difference.

Liberalism prides itself on its toleration of cultural and other differences. Some cultural groups, however, are internally illiberal. They do not treat their members as free and equal autonomous individuals with rights but as having identities defined by their membership in and place within the group, and by relation to the group's values. They are communal selves rather than individual ones. People so identifying themselves cannot easily flourish in liberal society by taking advantage of its freedoms. Hence, it is said that liberalism cannot treat such minority cultures fairly in accordance with its own principles.

Liberalism can tolerate such groups provided that they do not harm others and provided that their members are free to leave without suffering unjust discrimination. The problem is whether persons formed in such groups are really free to leave unless they have had a liberal education that enables them to think of themselves as individuals with the power and right of choice. But if they do think of themselves in this way, they will no longer be the communal selves they were. The liberal education of its members would undermine the group's illiberal identity and force it to reconstitute itself in liberal terms. It is clear also that illiberal groups could not be specially represented in the political realm without turning that realm from a principled association into what would be at best a pragmatic compromise between conflicting groups. There is no reasonable compromise between liberalism and illiberalism. In the end one must seek to show the superiority of a liberal society by appealing to some foundational principle and by reiterating that there is no possible social scheme compatible with a principled order that is more tolerant of difference than liberalism.

A more modest claim for the special recognition of cultural difference would be that of cultural minorities whose values are not incompatible with liberalism but whose members are disadvantaged relative to the majority in terms of their ability to compete on fair terms to obtain the benefits of liberal society. The demand would be in part for the preferential treatment of the members of such groups so that they could enjoy fair equality of opportunity. But this would not be to give special recognition to the culture as such but to its members as disadvantaged individuals. Some cultural minorities might also reasonably claim to be given symbolic public recognition as distinct and loyal members of the polity in public ceremonies celebrating the history of the nation and the contributions of its various citizens.

Liberalism and women's difference.

In the beginning, feminism was just the application of liberal principles to women. Women were conceived as having fundamentally the same nature and interests as men and thereby entitled to the same rights.

Radical feminists from the 1970s, however, opposed the liberal assimilation of women's claims on the grounds that the liberal conception of the person did not reflect women's nature. This nature had been obscured by millennia of patriarchal rule and needed liberation from patriarchal society before its true content could be revealed. But whatever it turned out to be, the radical feminists were certain that it would not be a liberal individual. They held that whereas the liberal individual was based on impersonal rationality and abstraction, women's ethical life was rooted in her body and its emotions.

Insofar as women's difference amounts to an illiberal nature opposed to liberal man, the same issues are raised as those that occur in the cultural case, although compounded by the fact that men and women would seem to have to live together in the private realm if the race is to be satisfactorily continued. Women cannot be treated as a self-reproducing cultural group. Nevertheless, illiberal women could be specially represented in the public sphere. Yet, this would turn it once again into a reasonable compromise between the representatives of conflicting values.

Women could, of course, be seen as a disadvantaged group whose members need preferential treatment in order to achieve fair equality of opportunity. But this is not incompatible with liberalism. Some contemporary women writers claim that it is incompatible on the grounds that if women are given special treatment because of their difference, for example, their maternal being, then liberalism's claim to treat all persons equally without respect for gender will be breached. Nevertheless, because the ground for special treatment is to achieve fair equality of opportunity for different individuals in regard to their different circumstances, this argument seems invalid.

The radical feminists belief in a special women's nature was subverted by the postmodernist feminists, who reject the idea of essential selves. Identities are socially produced and always subject to challenge and change. This view would seem to make it impossible to claim that women as such are oppressed in patriarchal or liberal society because there is no such thing as women as such. Nevertheless, postmodern feminists believe that it is still possible within particular discourses to resist established conventions and develop alternative discourses regarding women. But to what end is unclear.

Economic liberalism.

Economic liberalism is the view that the best economic order is a free market. This view may be justified by utilitarian considerations, as in those of Bentham, or by a combination of natural rights and utilitarian consequences, as in the theory of Adam Smith.

Fundamental to Smith's view is the idea of a natural order. This is the social order that develops when individuals are allowed to pursue their interests through specialization and exchange of goods and services. It is an expression of human beings' natural right to liberty. But it is also the best way for a society to promote the accumulation of wealth and national power.

Individuals are motivated in the natural order by the desire to improve their material condition, and given a suitable economic environment competition among them will normally produce beneficial consequences. Such an environment requires the free movement of labor, capital, and goods; many buyers and sellers; sound information among buyers and sellers; security of person and property; and the abolition of monopolies, tariffs, and government regulation of production and consumption. Yet Smith acknowledges that there exists a class of public goods that it is the function of government to provide, including the administration of justice, defense, and education.

Smith is not blind to the defects of the liberal economic individual and society but thinks liberal society is still preferable to aristocratic society. In particular, he deplores the condition of the poor but believes that their only hope lies in the accumulation of wealth. Furthermore, he distrusts the capacity and interests of the poor to make political decisions in the general interest, which he identifies with the system of liberal liberty. So, like many other early liberals, he wants a liberal polity to be restricted to property owners.

Smith is the founder of classical economics, which is committed to free markets and hence economic liberalism. Another major figure in this school is David Ricardo (17721823), whose Principles of Political Economy and Taxation dominated the subject until the end of the nineteenth century. However, in Ricardo the subject becomes more technical and abstract and less concerned with its connections with liberal values more generally.

Economic liberalism of the Smithian kind is commonly thought to have been practiced by the British government during the nineteenth century and to a lesser extent by others. But this is far from being unqualifiedly true. The British government interfered in market outcomes during this period by regulating working conditions, trade unions, and the rates of utility companies, and by imposing an income tax and maintaining a monopoly of the money supply. The general spirit of economic liberalism is better described as a strong presumption in favor of laissez faire unless it was clear that intervention was to the general benefit.

Classical and revisionist liberalism.

Classical liberalism is the liberalism that prevailed mainly in northern Europe and North America up to the second half of the nineteenth century. It consisted of minimal government intervention in economy and society. But it was by no means politically democratic, especially in Europe where liberals were for the most part and for a long time strongly resistant to the inclusion of the propertyless in the benefits and burdens of a liberal polity. Its principles received notable political expression in the declarations of the rights of man and the citizen of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, while the extremes of the latter revolution confirmed many middle-class liberals in their hostility to democracy. Because of its economic and political association with the middle classes, classical liberalism can easily be represented as the ideology of the capitalist class, a position taken by Karl Marx (18181883) and other socialists. As presented in this entry, however, the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism go far wider and deeper than that claim implies. This is shown by the way the application of its principles was revised in the course of the nineteenth century to accommodate what most liberals came to accept as inevitable, namely the arrival of democracy.

The revision in practice took the form of increasing government intervention in the economy to protect the interests and promote the welfare of workers. Government resources, obtained through general taxation, are used to provide for the basic needs of the population. The revision in liberal theory that justified the change to big government involved a shift from the belief of the classical liberals that normal adult human beings would automatically have developed the capacity to exercise their freedom in their own interests to the view that this capacity needed suitable economic, educational, and social conditions for its developmenta belief found in the works of Mill and especially the nineteenth-century idealists. If individuals cannot provide these conditions for themselves, then fellow citizens must do so through state action. In general the move is to a greater emphasis on the equality aspect of equal liberty, as exemplified in Rousseau's thought, a change requiring more protection for workers and the poor.

Rather than as an abrupt and radical break, this revision of classical liberalism should be considered a movement along a continuum of possible social forms, all based on the liberal principle of equal liberty. At one extreme of this continuum is libertarian anarchy with no government at all, which is followed by the minimal state as described above in Smith's theory, and increasing levels of government intervention all the way to the government ownership of the means of production at the other extreme. The latter can still be called liberal provided that individual freedom prevails in all but the economic realm and that economic socialism is understood as the best means of assuring an equal liberty. Classical liberalism shares with revisionist liberalism the belief that government intervention can be justified if it works out to the general advantage.

Liberalism and nationalism.

Liberalism and a weak form of nationalism developed together. Liberalism was a way of organizing society for the benefit of its members in a manner that promoted, better than any alternative, the society's harmony, prosperity, and power in a world of independent states. The nation here is just the collection of people organized in a state and thereby sharing common interests in their peace, prosperity, and power.

A strong form of nationalism holds that a nation is an ethnocultural group sharing a common ancestry, history, and culture and that membership in such a group is fundamental to the identity and value of the individual. Nationalism in this sense is totally antithetical to liberalism, for which individual identity is deeper than national identity.

A form of nationalism intermediate between the two is to be found in Mill and the contemporary thinker David Miller. According to this view a democratic liberal state will work betterbe more harmonious and justif the great majority share a nationality in the ethnocultural sense.

Liberalism has also been allied with imperialism. The argument here is that the rule of a liberal state over other peoples, such as the rule of Britain over India, may be justified if it serves to develop the subject peoples' capacity to become self-governing individuals and a self-governing peoplein other words to develop in them the culture of liberalism. It is held by some that cultural imperialism of this kind, if not political imperialism, has been pursued by the Western powers after World War II through the United Nations program on Human Rights. Ultimately, the only justification for pursuing a liberal program domestically or internationally is that liberalism describes a better way for human beings to live together than any alternative because it better expresses and actualizes their fundamental nature and interests.

See also Conservatism ; Constitutionalism ; Democracy ; Enlightenment ; Utilitarianism .



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John Charvet


views updated May 14 2018


emancipatory liberalism
liberalism in power
liberalism challenged and surpassed

For a good many reasons the nineteenth century may be considered the century of liberalism par excellence. Indeed the Europeans of the time took it for granted that theirs was a liberal era. The term itself and several other relatives of "liberty" ("liberal," "liberals," "liberalism," or the Italian "liberismo," referring to an economic rather than a political liberalism) all date from the nineteenth century. Consequently, and even though liberalism can claim no founding programmatic statement or text, the word has come to connote almost all the great political and social changes brought by "modernity."

Four broad spheres may be identified that together make it possible to arrive at an overall picture of nineteenth-century European liberalism. One such sphere in which liberal ideas were able to develop was the judicial one, embracing the entirety of reforms and advances of a legal kind founded on guarantees made to the individual and including the right to defend oneself in court, the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to a trial by jury—in short, the right to justice, whether individual or collective (especially with respect to religious minorities). The issue here is less the "rights of man," in the sense of the French Declaration of 1789, than a set of rights, won incrementally and concretely within the judicial realm, which together solidified the rule of law (called l'état de droit by the French and Rechtstaat in German-speaking countries). This process was under way before 1789 and it continued long thereafter (as witness the belated abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1860).

A second front of advancing liberalism was that of the economic, commercial, and industrial freedoms wrested from the old economic order based on partial control of the economy by the state (mercantilism), on various kinds of corporations and monopolies, and on the last vestiges of the feudal yoke. The notion that anything that helps free up commerce and industry must be good for the individual and for society at large gained currency as early as the second half of the eighteenth century. The idea of free trade nourished the prospect of prosperity and social harmony not just within each country but also in the relations between states: commerce was supposed not merely to offer individuals the greatest possible number of opportunities, not only to reward talent and merit but also to bring peoples closer together through exchange and reciprocal enrichment.

Advances in the realms of thought and science constitute a third sphere of liberal growth. Here the notion of freedom implied the setting of great store by discussion; the spread of "enlightenment" and the creation of a "public sphere" where not only every new idea but also every new political reform, indeed every "public" innovation, could be subjected to the test of debate and argument in a multitude of circles, academies, salons, clubs, and newspapers or journals.

The fourth dimension of the spread of liberalism in Europe concerns the most decisive but also the most delicate aspect of the matter, namely the organization and the very nature of political power: free and open discussion, public control over the actions of the executive authorities, the holding of government responsible for any errors it might commit—all were cardinal for liberalism, or more precisely for liberal constitutionalism.

Separately or together, these four aspects of the rise of liberalism were responsible for an almost infinite variety of policies and moments that could be described to a greater or lesser degree as "liberal." In some cases legal and civil liberties were granted without any true loosening of the grip of an authoritarian political order (as for example in the case of the Stein, Hardenberg, and Humboldt reforms in Prussia between 1807 and 1815). Sometimes, by contrast, economic liberalism was introduced to boost national power, especially in the military sector, without any concomitant political liberalism—without instituting such public freedoms as the right of assembly, the freedom of the press and of publication, and the right of association, or such constitutional liberties as a parliamentary system and broader suffrage.

Had it ever achieved its full expression, therefore, nineteenth-century European liberalism would have meant the fusion of all four spheres into an indivisible whole. To define a political order, the doctrine of a party, or the ideas of an individual as liberal in the fullest sense would then imply the reality or premise of an established state having adopted economic liberalism (a free market, or what the Italians call liberismo, implying minimal state intervention) while at the same time embracing complete freedom of the public realm and genuinely liberal state institutions (executive and legislative bodies in competition based on open debate and the principle of governmental accountability). The chances of all four strands of liberalism coming together in this way, however, were close to nil. To confront such an ideal model with the various realities of European history is to understand why liberalism was never consistently defined across the Continent. The best that may be hoped for by way of definition of nineteenth-century liberalism is a sort of scale of historical situations, ranging, say, from nearly perfect examples (Great Britain in the 1850–1890 period and a number of smaller European states such as Belgium or the Netherlands) to cases of weak and minority liberalism (Otto von Bismarck's [1815–1898] Germany, Austria-Hungary after 1867, or—and especially—tsarist Russia), with France, Italy, or Spain occupying intermediate positions as examples of an unfinished or partial liberalism.

To these fundamental obstacles in the path of a clear definition of European liberalism must be added difficulties of the linguistic, ideological, and cultural kinds. In Europe the nineteenth century was the age of rising nationalism, and the use of the terms liberal and liberalism, like the adoption by one state or another of a model considered liberal, were widely infected by national rivalries. As identified with the ideas thrown up by the French Revolution, "liberal" notions were violently denounced in the 1820–1850 period by monarchist states attached to the old European order, even though such states (including Prussia, Austria, several small German states, and Piedmont) had already undertaken civil, judicial, and administrative reforms consistent with the ideal of the rule of law. As attributed, by contrast, to France's great rival England, "liberalism" was the butt of a multitude of criticisms and caricatures from Jacobins, democrats, and republicans; from this perspective, French Republicanism, even as embodied in the Third Republic after 1875, was seen as an advance beyond liberalism, which was too "English" and too aristocratic. Lastly, in a general way, and especially in the second half of the century, liberalism came in many countries to be viewed simply as an import either from the Anglo-Saxon world or (as by Russian pan-Slavism) from the Western one; the rejection of liberalism, or the claim that liberalism had been transcended and its supposed shortcomings obviated, thus became a badge of patriotic and nationalist correctness (as in the Germany of William II).

emancipatory liberalism

The features of the liberal movement that developed in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 had little in common with the present-day conception of liberalism. The "liberalism" of that time was inseparable from violent, revolutionary events set in motion by the people, and the power of liberal ideas from the advent of the Revolution onward was grounded in their rejection of an ancien régime all the more intolerable because it was in decline (see Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Régime and the French Revolution, first published in 1856). In every part of Europe where the reverberations of the Revolution were felt, whether directly (thanks to invasion and occupation by the French) or indirectly, the idea of liberty had as its first implication freedom from the old order. This emancipation had legal aspects (equality before the law; one justice for all; the same rights for every individual, irrespective of birth); social and economic aspects (suppression of guilds, right of free enterprise, abolition of church tithes); intellectual aspects (freedom of the press, growth of philosophical societies); and, of course, political aspects proper (the establishment of elected representative bodies capable of participating in or even seizing state decision-making powers).

Linked as they were to the French Revolution, these "liberal" ideas suffered the backlash of disillusion that the Revolution precipitated. For the Revolution did not long remain the general "idea" celebrated by European philosophy in general and by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in particular; as a historical reality, after all, it meant the Terror, civil war, religious persecution, anarchy, corruption—and ultimately dictatorship, in the shape of Napoleon I (1769–1821). It is here, in fact, that the real roots of liberalism are to be found: in the need to draw up a critical balance-sheet of modern liberal ideas, ideas that did not originate in some miraculously rational doctrine applied by an enlightened government, nor in the heads of philosophers gathered together, but which were forged in the great maelstrom of a people's revolution. European liberalism, at least on the Continent (for Great Britain was an exception in this regard), drew strength from its own contradictions, from the gulf between its philosophical agenda and the runaway course of its historical embodiment.

All the basic questions concerning European liberalism were raised during the years 1800–1820, either in the form of intellectual review (Edmund Burke [1729–1797] in Great Britain, beginning in 1790; Benjamin Constant de Rebecque [1767–1830], Germaine de Staël [1766–1817], and François Guizot [1787–1874] in France between 1790 and 1820); or else in the more concrete and pressing form of the set of dilemmas confronting the political and social elites: Should political freedoms (of assembly, the press, association, elections) be instituted at the risk of inviting excesses and anarchy among the people? Should the political responsibility of the government with respect to parliament be instated at the risk of weakening the central power of the state (so necessary in case of civil or foreign war)? Should completely free trade and exchange be allowed at the risk of creating a social void, of atomizing society by abolishing mediating bodies and spontaneous associations? Should a representative system be confined to elites alone or should the perils of universal suffrage be confronted? Seen in this light, the liberalism of the first half of the nineteenth century, as expressed by Guizot, for example, or by his Dutch counterpart Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798–1872), was an anxious and at times pessimistic one. It vacillated between an overarching optimism, envisioning the historical advent of liberty and reason thanks to representative government and the rise of a universal middle class, and a pessimism based on real fears (of people's uprisings, the Jacobin Terror, the specter of the guillotine, the manifest instability of post-1789 political regimes, and the extension of suffrage).

From this critical relationship to the French Revolution arose the two great contrasting traditions of European liberalism: on the one hand, a left-wing liberalism that did not confine itself to promoting the tenets of liberal philosophy but considered the people to be a historical agent, actively sought to extend the involvement of individuals in the machinery of the state, and deemed it legitimate to resort to revolution; on the other hand, a conservative liberalism, concerned with the civil and social order, which strove to protect the individual from the power of the state, feared anarchy and the people and urged reform while rejecting revolution and democracy. As early as the Restoration period in France (1814–1830), both tendencies nevertheless appeared under the banner of the liberal "party" in common opposition to reactionary monarchism. They were likewise present in Spain, where the term liberal was first used in connection with the regime voted in by the Cadiz Cortes (assembly) in 1812; during the three-year liberal interlude of 1820–1823, liberals were subdivided into moderados (moderates) and exaltados (ultraradicals). In Great Britain too the liberal universe tended to swing from moderation and the aristocratic tradition (the Whig party) to radical and democratic demands (followers of James Mill [1773–1836]). In Italy, the Risorgimento, a movement whose goal was the reunification of the nation as a free country, was split between advocates of a liberal state under whose sway reforms would be implemented from above (Count Cavour [Camillo Benso, 1810–1861] in Piedmont) and proponents of a more democratic liberalism (such as Giuseppe Mazzini [1805–1872]). In all European countries the liberal tendency initiated at the beginning of the century thus followed a narrow course between two possible "deviations," rather like a bowling ball ever in danger of veering to left or right off its lane. Liberals who tended to resist even cautious reforms out of fear of universal suffrage, of violent revolution, or of the poorer classes in general, tended to defect to conservatism; those ready to pursue democracy, voting rights, or the will of the people come what may, tended to quit the liberal realm and enlist with democrats, radicals, or republicans.

Almost everywhere, this basic split in liberalism was correlated with two distinct views of the role of religion in modern society. Thus radicals or exaltados espoused anticlericalism, whereas moderados, Whigs, or conservative liberals felt that strong religious institutions buttressed the social order. In predominantly Catholic countries this dividing line left but a very narrow space for liberal Catholicism. And the further liberal and modern ideas evolved toward democracy, lay institutions, and secularism, the further religious practice declined and the more sharply contradictory Catholics who had endorsed the liberal program of 1820–1830 felt their own positions to have become: they felt that they had played the sorcerer's apprentice.

Liberalism was precipitated and carried forward by the French Revolution, but for that very reason it was assailed by the Revolution's backwash. In the Europe of the Holy Alliance that emerged from the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), the liberal tendency was reduced to the role of a minority opposition, at least for the time being. It was not long, however, before trends in the development of ideas, of the arts and of culture, gave liberal ideas a new lease on life. The about-face of Romanticism, a movement which began by opposing eighteenth-century rationalism but ended up exalting the freedom of the artist from the dictates of academicism, is a very typical instance. Although the expression of liberal ideas in the properly political sense was seriously hindered by authoritarian restrictions, the liberal sensibility, at least, continued to develop through music, opera, theater, poetry, literature, and the genre historique. This example of "the cunning of history" did more, perhaps, for the dissemination of liberal ideas than formal political organizations of liberals in legal and parliamentary opposition. The revolution of July 1830 in France, which opened the way to a liberal monarchy personified by Louis-Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877) and Guizot, was also a revolt of Romantic youth.

But the chief ally of the liberal idea in the Europe of 1820–1840 was unquestionably the idea of the nation. This might seem paradoxical in view of the fact that this idea would later be assimilated to that of nationalism, and hence to a rejection of liberal values. In the context of the early nineteenth century, however, the primary connotation of the idea of the nation was that of an emancipation. The point was liberation: either liberation from foreign occupation—be it that of the future Belgium from the Netherlands; that of Poland, largely occupied by Russia; that of Ireland from the English; or that of Greece and other Balkan countries from the Ottoman Turks—or liberation from the division of a nation into several states, an arrangement perceived as an anachronistic legacy of the past, as in the case of Germany or even in that of the Swiss confederation. Italy belonged to both categories, being partly occupied and partly shackled by divisions (between Italian states) inherited from the past. In much of continental Europe—indeed in by far the greater portion of it, considering the ease with which national demands proliferated as freedom movements spread—the cause of national freedom was thus a formidable crucible of liberal ideas.

During this first phase of the nineteenth century, for example in the philhellenist movement of the 1820s, the freedom of one European nation was felt to concern all other Europeans in accordance with an optimistic and reconciliatory outlook sustained by the liberal movement's Romantic generation. The liberals of each country should struggle for their own national freedom, but, once it was won, they should come to the aid of the liberals and patriots of other, still oppressed countries. As for the military interventions of conservative monarchies seeking to repress movements of national emancipation (such as the invasions of Spain and of Italian states during the 1820s, or the quelling of liberal-national movements in 1848, notably in Italy and Hungary), they merely reinforced the intensity of the ideas, passions, and myths of Romantic liberalism. A liberal "public opinion" came into being for the first time. Liberal tendencies in each country won many more recruits by playing on national-patriotic themes than they could ever have garnered by evoking the liberal program in its "pure" form (consider the liberal patriots in Spain, Italy, and Germany).

Even after 1850 and the first disillusions with movements of national unification, the idea of a right to freedom for every European people or nation continued to be a central plank of liberal party platforms. Right up until 1914, in fact, a not insignificant portion of Europe, from Ireland to the Balkans, and including the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, known as a "prison of peoples," continued to foster the alliance between liberalism and the idea of the nation (in Norway, the liberal-national party Venstre led the country into independence in 1905; the Greece of Eleuthérios Venizelos [1864–1936] and the Irish Home Rule struggle likewise come to mind here).

liberalism in power

Borne along by the whirlwind of revolutionary, emancipatory, and national ideas; by most literary and artistic trends; and by the gradual embrace by European states themselves of modern conceptions of law, the liberal movement in the first half of the nineteenth century tended to find itself fighting for social demands and against established power (authoritarian monarchies or representative systems with oligarchic tendencies where the vote was confined to the propertied classes). Liberalism derived a powerful dynamism from this oppositional role. The midpoint of the century saw the start of a new stage, that of "liberalism in power." Its divisions notwithstanding, the liberal movement became almost everywhere the chief government party or the chief political force capable of affecting the decisions of governments and states.

The best example of liberalism triumphant was Great Britain. There are five reasons for saying so. First of all, British liberalism benefited from the continuity between already ancient traditions of civil liberties (habeas corpus) and of local and parliamentary aristocratic rights and such modern achievements as the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, the establishment of free trade, freedom of thought, and the extension of the franchise in 1832. It was thus not necessary for British liberalism to negotiate a revolutionary crisis opening a chasm between tradition and modernity, ancien régime and revolution, the elites and the people, and liberal ideas and progress toward democracy. The passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 showed that the parliamentary regime was capable of reforming itself and getting into step with the march of history. The second reason for British liberalism's success was that, although confronted until the outbreak of World War I by the continued social and political power of the aristocracy and the "establishment," it was able to incorporate many radical and even populist themes (in the arguments of William Gladstone [1809–1898] himself, and later in those of David Lloyd George [1863–1945] in his campaign against the House of Lords), and thus glean support from the working classes.

In the third place, the British liberals had already gained access in the eighteenth century to the very heart of political power thanks to the presence in Parliament and in the government of the Whigs, incarnation of the struggle against absolute monarchy. British liberal constitutionalism, based on the weakening of royal prerogatives and the emergence of the cabinet as a governmental structure, became the model for liberals throughout Europe. The fourth reason for liberalism's dominance in Britain, bound up with the patriotic parliamentary constitutionalism that reached its zenith in the middle of Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901), is that Great Britain was also the cradle of the most thoroughgoing expression of liberal political philosophy. In John Stuart Mill's (1806–1873) account (1859), liberty was at once a condition of individual accomplishment and the only possible guarantor of an independent society that could run itself (mutual aid, charity, philanthropical associations) and thus limit the reach of state power. Although it is arguable that liberal philosophy concerned only the elite, liberalism in the broad sense certainly became the core of British national identity—and that is the fifth reason for its ascendancy. Victorious liberalism in the British mold, as the final argument of British military, maritime, commercial, and industrial power—linked to the adoption of free trade (1846–1848), to the notion of an increase in wealth and an improvement in life within the reach of all (as embodied by the campaigns of Richard Cobden [1804–1865] and the Anti–Corn Law League, created in 1839), and to the prospect of stable and pacific relations between states, in the period framed by the administrations of its two great prime ministers, Robert Peel (1788–1850) and William Gladstone (1809–1898), among others—represented the true high-water mark of the entire European liberal movement.

This "moment" of governmental liberalism may certainly be discerned in other European countries, as for example in Piedmont under Cavour or Hungary under Ferenc Deák (1803–1876), but such instances are invariably less stable and less "pure" than the British one. The case of France, where the memory of the Revolution of 1789 remained present in everyone's mind, and where the experience of political revolution was in fact relived several times (in 1830, 1848, and 1870–1871), is certainly the most complicated. That liberal ideas were in power in France cannot be disputed: one need only consider the nature of the country's political institutions (French parliamentarianism was in every way comparable to British) or the establishment of public freedoms at the end of the Second Empire and under the Third Republic. There were nevertheless three impediments to the advent of a true liberal era in France. In the first place, the powerful central role of an administrative state inherited from the ancien régime, and from Napoleon, continued to block the complete application of civil, judicial, and political liberalism: important factors here were the existence of an administrative justice separate from the general judicial system, a number of restrictions upon public freedoms, and state controls affecting civil servants and judges. Secondly, French liberalism, now identified with the limited electoral system of the July Monarchy (1830–1848), was criticized and overtaken by a more radical conception of democracy stemming from the Revolutionary tradition (Jacobinism and the ideal of direct democracy).

Although a few republicans in the 1860s, at the beginning of the Third Republic, continued to describe themselves as liberals (Jules Ferry [1832–1893] being a case in point), the word underwent a distinct change in sense and usage in the last decades of the century, as republican, democratic, and radical ideas continued to evolve. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was being used only by those Catholics (Popular Liberal Action party) opposed to the secularizing reform efforts of left-republican governments. The third obstacle confronting French liberals was the fact that they were the first in Europe to contend with mass electoral politics, universal male suffrage having been instituted in 1848. In this connection, French liberalism simply did not have the mobilizing appeal of radicalism, socialism, or even nationalist and chauvinist forms of conservatism. This was amply demonstrated by legislative election results up until 1914. The fact was that French liberals were often distinguished individuals hailing from the professional class and having no connection with movements, trade unions, or other organizations rooted in civil society. They were therefore condemned to remain in the minority, even if their ideas influenced all their adversaries (the republicans eventually became fierce defenders of parliamentarianism—and this even in its bicameral version, a characteristic liberal cause).

As for German liberals, they did achieve political power, first in Prussia and in a number of small states (notably Baden) and later in the context of a unified Reich, but this success entailed a basic change in liberalism itself, a shift that was evident in varying degrees throughout Europe and especially in newly unified nation-states.

Until the failure of the 1848 revolution and of the Parliament of Frankfurt (1848–1849), the program of the German liberals called for German unity to be attained by liberal means. They banked on the support of an educated middle class and the leadership of liberal governments in each of the German states (such as that of Heinrich von Gagern [1799–1880] in Hesse; Gagern also presided between December 1848 and May 1849 over the government formed by the Parliament of Frankfurt). Economic exchange (Zollverein) was also expected by the liberals to play a unifying role, along with the extension of public rights, a free press, and peaceful political relations among the states. After the shattering successes of Bismarck's authoritarian policies, however, and the imposition of unity on the Germans from above (1871), the liberals were obliged to define themselves not only in terms of their own philosophy but also by reference to the national prestige of Bismarck and the new Reich. Their subsequent electoral gains and their place in parliament and government could not be attributed solely to the virtues of the liberal program, for they had effectively subordinated themselves to other political tendencies and in so doing firmly tied the liberalism to the idea of the nation. The upshot was twofold: in the first place, the liberals split into opposing camps, with Rudolf von Bennigsen's (1824–1902) Nationalliberale Partei, founded in 1879, on one side and Eugene Richter's (1838–1906) left progressives on the other; secondly, the conquest of supreme power became impossible for them inasmuch as the chancellor, Bismarck, was not answerable to the Reichstag. This shift in Germany between 1861 and 1890 had profound and long-lasting consequences for European liberalism as a whole and most particularly for countries such as Italy.

In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 liberalism could reasonably identify itself with the movement of history itself; it seemed to be the incarnation of the modern idea of progress. Later, even its reverses and failures, including the return of conservative monarchies after 1814–1815, could be looked upon merely as temporary obstacles or delays in the ineluctable advent of a liberal regime and society. In Bismarck, however, the liberals were faced by an opponent who had won where they had lost. The German liberals of 1848 showed up the weakness and limitations of their movement, its inability to endow the Germans with a unified state, to make war on Austria and France, to create a strong and effective government. The final irony was that the very enemies thought to have been condemned by the movement of history—conservatives, sometime reactionaries, monarchists of the ancien régime—had retrieved a prestige and popularity among the people (Bismarck first, then William II [r. 1888–1918]) that no one could ever have imagined before 1848. In striking contrast, the liberals themselves, whether "national" or "progressive," proved incapable of expanding beyond the middle classes, the liberal professions, and the intellectual elite. Thereafter it was easy for their opponents to denounce them for defending the status quo and private property and standing for class privilege (or, in Italy, for favoring the North over the South).

liberalism challenged and surpassed

Between about 1890 and 1914 liberalism in Europe had to deal with the surging power of the masses and the problems of freedom in an industrial society. This watershed period was marked by the generalization of political suffrage; the achievement of literacy by the greater portion of the population; a dramatic expansion of the popular press and of all kinds of publishing; and the emergence of large organizations—patriotic associations or leagues, trade unions, and political parties. During the period from 1860 to 1880, all the main European political traditions, namely liberalism, democratic radicalism, socialism, and nationalism, were essentially at parity with respect to the coming struggle for mass support.

By 1914 the state of play as it would have appeared to contemporaries was extremely unfavorable to liberals and liberalism. How is such a failure to be explained?

A first consideration is that liberalism found it very hard to adapt to the new world of highly organized and disciplined political parties. At bottom, liberalism was the product of the highly restricted ("censitary") representative systems of the early nineteenth century and of circumscribed groups of intellectuals (aristocratic salons and clubs, learned societies, newspaper editorial committees, Masonic lodges in some countries, and so on). Almost everywhere in Europe, therefore, liberals were defined by their fealty to the principle of open debate and to the interplay of freely formed and expressed opinions. Factionalism and its attendant divisions alarmed them not at all.

Neither the Whigs in Great Britain, nor the liberals of the July Monarchy in France, nor their counterparts in Spain or Italy were ever unified, and they never defended political unity as needful to a "party." All these assumptions and habits became a liability with the advent of the mass era. Vis-à-vis a newly vast electorate whose opinions were formed by the great popular newspapers and by national political campaigns, liberals frequently fell prey to their own divisions and to their inability to frame a simple or indeed "demagogic" program, to adopt a single slogan (or "cry" in the traditional English sense), or to produce a leader acceptable to all their number. In parliament they were confronted by groups unified by a coherent ideology—sometimes by radical democrats but more often by agrarian parties, Catholics, nationalists, or socialists. In this context they were often ill served by their affection for open debate and free balloting. Even where liberals succeeded in forming governments, as in Great Britain with Gladstone or Herbert Asquith (1852–1928), they were continually undermined by personal and factional rivalries. As the situation grew more perilous in Europe, as an accelerating arms race and mounting nationalist propaganda raised the specter of war, conservatives, often recycled as modern-day nationalists, had no trouble tarring liberals and parliamentary liberalism with the brush of weak government. There were even those among the liberals who "betrayed" their cause by endorsing the view that public order trumped individual liberties or that a strong executive took precedence over legislative government (as for instance in the Italy of Francesco Crispi [1819–1901]).

Some liberal parties, certainly, were organized and structured. In Great Britain, through the efforts of Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), who took the local model of Birmingham as his starting-point, and under the leadership of Gladstone, the Liberal Party assumed the profile of a modern political party. It drew a response from the masses (including the working class), imposed a relatively effective discipline on its members in Parliament, led coherent political campaigns at the national level, and so constructed a genuine identity for itself. Yet two facts militate against the claim that liberal "parties" enjoyed great success. In the first place, save in Great Britain and a few northern countries, partisan liberal organizations throughout Europe must be said to have failed. This is true of Italy, and most of all of France, where the liberals achieved neither parliamentary discipline nor any kind of national electoral organization (the radical-socialists, who dominated French political life in the 1900s, not being purely liberal in character).

Second, and this even in Great Britain, the philosophical tenets of liberalism continued to undermine the reality, stability, and durability of the party form. Gladstone's Liberal Party very soon suffered the secession of the Unionists (1886) over the issues of Irish Home Rule and imperialism. And even though the party continued to dominate the political scene during the Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836–1908) and Asquith governments (1906–1914), and on through the war years, with David Lloyd George (1863–1945) and Winston Churchill (1871–1947) in the leadership, it is doubtful that the Liberals were a homogeneous and philosophically consistent grouping: internal debate raged on imperialism, on state intervention in the economy, and on the redistribution of wealth by fiscal means—all issues that put Whigs, moderate liberals, partisans of the New Liberalism, and radicals at odds with one other.

A major reason, too, for European liberalism's failure on the eve of World War I was competition from socialism, and more generally from all the new social ideas of the time (not just the Marxist or collectivist ones). Political liberalism was in a weak position relative to the model of the modern political party, but social liberalism—meaning the social ideas of classic liberalism—also came under fire, and was indeed ultimately overtaken. The liberal view of socioeconomic issues was based on the importance of individual merit, the achievement of personal success, free enterprise and commerce, and a minimal role for the state; these ideas had long dominated European thinking. It is arguable, indeed, that so long as socioeconomic features of the ancien régime persisted (such as constraints on business, the power of the landowning nobility, of corporations and guilds, or of the established church), then the ideas of the so-called Manchester liberals retained a good deal of their progressive character, that they were still revolutionary as applied to the most economically backward parts of the Continent, where agrarian reform was still unheard of and property ownership highly restricted. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, these liberal economic and social conceptions no longer tallied with majority opinion. In the mid-1870s the European economy had entered its first great cycle of depression in the modern sense. The liberal myth of a market economy founded on never-ending progress and the enrichment of all lost credibility. Most European countries aside from Britain adopted protectionist measures and turned their backs on the free-trade ideal, hitherto considered the guarantee of rapprochement and interdependence between states. By the century's end, the economy began to be perceived within European opinion as a new kind of war of conquest, of merciless competition (including the practice of dumping). This was yet another blow to the sanguine visions of economic liberalism of the Manchester variety.

Around 1900, even though Marx's bleak predictions concerning the pauperization of the working class and the total collapse of capitalism had not come to pass, the promise of generalized prosperity held out by liberalism had proved scarcely less illusory. Poverty and the extremely slow development of a middle class in the agricultural regions of southern Europe, including most of Spain and Portugal, the south of Italy, and the Balkans, were inhospitable conditions for the implantation of liberal ideas, especially in view of spreading socialist and even anarchist ideas and (as in Scandinavia) the success of agrarian-defense parties. Meanwhile, in urbanized and industrialized areas of Europe, the liberal vision of a society founded on individual merit and the disappearance of social class was given the lie by low social mobility, by the persistence of class and status differences, and by abiding feelings of fear and insecurity centered on industrial accidents, temporary or chronic unemployment, and illness. True, a new generation of liberals, spearheaded by Giovanni Giolitti (1842–1928) in Italy and by Lloyd George in Britain (with his "people's budget" of 1909 based on progressive taxation), introduced real social reforms in the 1900s (the eight-hour day in Italy in 1908; the British National Insurance Act in 1911) that laid the groundwork for the welfare states of the future. But even these measures inevitably appeared timid and incomplete, not to say hypocritical, when compared with the social solutions, pledges, and utopias outlined in the programs of the radical-democratic, social-democratic, and socialist parties.

As World War I approached, the liberals' economic and social agenda spoke only tangentially to the broad masses; only the middle and professional classes were drawn to it. The movement appeared distinctly weaker than its immediate rivals. In sharp contrast to democratic and radical parties, liberals were often reticent and suspicious with regard to universal suffrage and the political participation of the masses; they seemed pusillanimous, as compared with conservatives and nationalists, when it came to the defense of national unity and public order; and the appeal of their promises on the social front was easily surpassed by that of the socialists.

Perhaps the most striking instance of liberal failure in the 1900–1914 period is the case of Russia. During the nineteenth century, Russian liberals anticipated the conjunction of top-down reforms and the institution of liberal political representation from below (by means of the zemstvos, or local government councils, for example). When the moment finally arrived, however, under the pressure of the revolution of 1905 and the convening of a first Duma (elected national assembly), the liberals were very quickly left behind: overtaken on the left by democrats (specifically, by part of the Constitutional Democratic party) and by the various socialist tendencies, they were also challenged on the right by the authoritarian measures taken by the tsar and the conservatives in order to buttress their power. Unable to detach themselves from their nineteenth-century antecedents, the liberals were obliged to make way for the political forces that would stamp the century ahead, namely socialists, nationalists, and partisans of a strong executive arm and an interventionist state.

Up until the outbreak of World War I it was still possible to argue that, even if liberalism had missed the turning-point of political modernity (universal suffrage, organized political parties, trade unions, mass-based leagues, and associations), liberal ideas now helped define regimes and states throughout Europe. Liberals could still console themselves by recalling that their goal had never been to engage in partisan politics but simply to disseminate liberal principles within judicial systems and state administrations, to provide the other parties with constitutional rules capable of regulating their confrontations, and infuse public life with civility and general moderation. But, as some liberals clearly realized immediately, the outbreak of World War I threw liberal principles and ideals dramatically into question. War among European states meant that experimenting with free trade, so far from bringing nations closer together, had set them at each other's throats. War signaled the failure of liberal diplomacy (and the notion of arbitration) vis-à-vis military leaders; likewise the failure of parliaments vis-à-vis executive branches seeking to strengthen their grip on power. By mobilizing the economy under state control, war also showed up the limitations of liberal economics. And with war came types of propaganda, press censorship, restrictions on civil liberties, and methods of treating foreign residents that eroded liberal judicial principles considered beyond challenge in the nineteenth century. Above all, the passions and hatreds unleashed by the war challenged the most important philosophical precept of nineteenth-century liberalism, namely the idea that modern politics should be founded on judgment and reason and partake of the supposed forward march of "civilization."

See alsoAsquith, Herbert Henry; Conservatism; France; Gagern, Heinrich von; Germany; Giolitti, Giovanni; Gladstone, William; Great Britain; Guizot, Françis; Italy; Lloyd George, David; Mill, John Stuart; Republicanism; Thiers, Louis-Adolphe.


Ashley, Susan A. Making Liberalism Work: The Italian Experience, 1860–1914. Westport, Conn., 2003.

de Ruggiero, Guido. The History of European Liberalism. Oxford, U.K., 1927.

Droz, Jacques. Le libéralisme rhénan 1815–1848. Paris, 1940.

Girard, Louis. Les libéraux français, 1814–1875. Paris, 1984.

Langewiesche, Dieter. Liberalism in Germany. Basingstoke, U.K., 2000.

Léontovitch, Victor. Histoire du libéralisme en Russie. 1987.

Morgan, Kenneth. The Age of Lloyd George. London, 1971.

Robledo, Ricardo, Irene Castells, and María Cruz Romeo. Orígenes del liberalismo. Universidad, política, economía. Salamanca, Spain, 2002.

Sheehan, James J. German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, 1978.

Sykes, Alan. The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism, 1776–1988. London, 1997.

Nicolas Roussellier


views updated May 17 2018


The heritage of liberalism

Classical liberalism

Liberalism in Europe and America

Modern liberalism

The future of liberalism


Liberalism is the belief in and commitment to a set of methods and policies that have as their common aim greater freedom for individual men. Early liberalism was identified with political parties or social classes and often with specific programs. Today, although some parties in Europe, Great Britain, and elsewhere bear the title Liberal, in contemporary usage the term ℌliberalism” refers to a system of thought and practice that is less specific than a philosophical doctrine and more inclusive than party principle. Liberalism is also too ecumenical and too pluralistic to be called, properly, an ideology. Contemporary liberalism is the product of centuries of development and of attitudes and responses widely shared among individuals. It can be described as: (1) a valuing of the free expression of individual personality; (2) a belief in men’s ability to make that expression valuable to themselves and to society; and (3) the upholding of those institutions and policies that protect and foster both free expression and confidence in that freedom.

The term “liberal” probably first acquired its modern political connotation from the Liberates, a Spanish party that supported for Spain a version of the French constitution of 1791. As a coherent system of ideals and practical goals, however, liberalism first developed in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thereafter, liberal parties and liberal views, developing independently or derived from the English model, appeared in Europe, several British colonies, and elsewhere in the world.

Liberal thought and practice have stressed two primary themes. One is the dislike for arbitrary authority, complemented by the aim of replacing that authority by other forms of social practice. A second theme is the free expression of individual personality. Liberal movements and liberal thought have usually emphasized one theme more than the other, though seldom one to the virtual exclusion of the other. Much of liberal political and social theory has, in fact, been devoted to reconciling these two aims, especially with respect to their philosophical and practical implications.

Early liberalism emphasized freedom from arbitrary authority. One mode of attack was the assertion of free conscience and the demand for religious tolerance. Liberals have often been nonconformists in religion, secularists, skeptics, and even antireligious. In place of traditional authority they have supported the authority of reason and of demonstrated, rather than revealed, truth. Liberalism has stressed also the desirability of impersonal social and political controls: the rule of law and the market. Liberals have usually been individualists and pluralists and have supported local and group liberties and the methods of consent and persuasion.

Also vital to liberalism has been the goal of an active freedom, the ideal that the individual has the opportunity and the capacity for free expression. To this end, liberals have supported a more equal distribution of liberty, the abolition of monopolies, the destruction of aristocratic privilege, and a law that was general and founded upon rational principles. Liberals have argued also for the expansion of opportunity, including state intervention to equalize and increase the opportunities open to individuals. For all these reasons, liberalism has usually been “progressive,” i.e., concerned with economic and social progress and favorable to science, technology, and pragmatic experimentalism.

The two most important objectives of liberalism —noninterference and enfranchisement—support each other but also conflict. The first objective, pur-sued to an extreme, would leave the individual at the mercy of nature, society, and group and economic power. The second, followed alone, leads ultimately to statism and technocracy. Liberalism is neither of the extremes. It is a reconciliation of the two goals, with the relation between them determined by the needs of a society and the means available to it. Thus, liberalism does not, in fact, include such disparate figures as Rexford G. Tug-well, John Dewey, and Ludwig von Mises. Each is in part illiberal. Liberalism requires a rational and conscientious reconciliation of two essential goals.

The heritage of liberalism

Liberalism, in both its classical and its more contemporary, or “revisionist,” forms, is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is the heir of a rich tradition. Liberty, constitutionalism, and toleration were known to the ancient world, and the Western liberalism of England, Europe, and America is the beneficiary of several religious traditions, of Greek philosophy and literature, of Roman law and constitutionalism. In the ancient world, however, liberty was closely associated with religion, ethnic culture, and citizenship. Liberalism itself did not exist as a separate and self-sustaining tradition. Moreover, the line of descent from ancient to modern liberty is not a direct one. The liberalism that developed in England and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, at that time, a unique occurrence, resulting from the convergence of social and political tendencies peculiar to a specific time and environment.

Liberalism benefited from medieval constitutionalism and from the religious traditions of the church and Western Christianity. English liberalism, because of the common law, the parliamentary tradition, and the peaceful character of the English Reformation, drew much from this background, a fact illustrated by the works of John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, and Edward Coke. On the Continent the same materials proved less usable, but they served in a limited way to legitimate ancient liberties, a measure of toleration, and the rule of law.

The Renaissance and the Reformation were important in fostering liberalism, especially through the contribution they made to individualism. The Protestant doctrine that each believer could communicate directly with God, without dependence upon priest or churchly hierarchy, was an important anti-institutional influence and therefore favorable to individualism. Ideals of personal sanctification and inwardness of moral life that earlier had been restricted to orders of monks, knights, and burghers were democratized during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, by stressing internal energy, individual responsibility, and the need for reconstructing the worldly order, greatly stimulated individualism, despite the intentions of Luther and Calvin or St. Ignatius and Pope Paul III.

Political changes, especially during and after the Reformation, contributed ultimately to the rise of liberalism. Wars decimated nobilities, broke down settled relations between lord and commoner, engaged new groups in collective activity. The domestic and international policies of monarchs brought to prominence bureaucrats of common or semi-noble status, lawyers, town merchants, military adventurers, and scholars and scientists. The new nation-states fostered changes in law, in the economy, and in personal relations that increased commerce and the circulation of money, and the numbers of merchants, masters, and artificers. Not to be ignored is the further fact that many of these political changes entailed taxation, intervention, oppression, and suppression, which were important issues in later constitutional struggles and liberal protests.

From the policies of modern states, from economic change, and from a diffusion of culture and literacy came the small self-conscious middle class, which was the most important vehicle for liberal doctrine. Scientific discovery and technological innovation, capitalist methods of economic venture, modified legal concepts, and new forms of property worked reciprocally, especially from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, to provide both the opportunity and the incentives for individual and group initiative. The consequence was the increase not only of a small commercial and industrial middle class but, even more important, the spread of attitudes hospitable to individual enterprise and to the creed of individual responsibility.

A comparatively rapid and wide diffusion of enlightened and cosmopolitan attitudes among social and political elites, as well as among burghers, professional men, merchants, and country gentry, was of enormous importance to the development of liberalism, especially in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This development depended upon and grew from the earlier humanism and enlightenment of the Renaissance and Reformation. But the earlier tradition had been restricted largely to the court, the city, and the clergy. During the eighteenth century the arts and the sciences, political life, and a comparatively sophisticated culture became accessible to a much wider circle. Many more read; many more discussed.

Liberalism, viewed in historical perspective, was the culmination of several broad social and political trends. It involved a change in the scope of individual aspirations and, perhaps more important, in the people who had them. Prior to the nineteenth century these aspirations were restricted to an elite of birth and wealth. Social environment, individual aspiration, and consciousness of capacity combined to produce, in the nineteenth century, a widely shared and politically potent liberal faith.

Classical liberalism

Liberalism, both as a doctrine and as a political program, developed most fully in England between the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Reform Act of 1867. Liberalism was first a limited appeal for constitutional guarantees and individual rights. It became a positive theory of economic and political organization and a political program with broad national appeal extending to many groups and classes. Neither on the Continent nor in the United States did early liberalism develop in a similar fashion. The experience of England stands alone; and the term “classical liberalism” is ordinarily used with reference to England.

Liberalism in England first took the form of a demand for religious liberties and toleration, constitutionalism, and political rights. During the Puritan revolution and the Commonwealth, written constitutions were proposed and pamphlets published demanding a number of liberties. Digger and Leveller tracts, the pamphlets of John Lilburne, the more reflective Commonwealth of Oceana of James Harrington, and Milton’s exalted defense of free speech in Areopagitica not only illustrate the scope of the constitutional controversy but also afford a sample of the political literature of the period. The revolution of 1688, the first “liberal revolution” in history, consolidated and gave definite constitutional form to the liberal gains of that century. The liberalism recognized and vindicated in 1689 was essentially negative in character, protecting groups and individuals from government, especially from the prerogatives of the crown. It was also aimed at securing chiefly political rather than economic objectives. Among those political objectives are some of the most important principles of liberal constitutionalism: the right of opposition, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. The settlement also included a recognition of important civil liberties by acts securing toleration, in 1688, and liberty of the press, in 1695. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and the American Declaration of Independence stand as the great monuments of this phase of liberalism. [seeConstitutions AND Constitutionalism;and the biography of Locke.]

The constitutional settlement and civil peace gave enormous impetus to a second theme of classical liberalism: the theory and practice of economic liberty. The English liberal economists, led by Adam Smith, were neither the first nor the only group to erect a theory upon the postulate of laissez-faire, but they were the most influential. Their ideals were: in the juridical sphere, free contract and the rule of law; in the economic sphere, a self-regulating market, unrestrained either by monopoly or political intervention; and in the social sphere, voluntarism and collaboration for mutual benefit. The laissez-faire doctrine and the practical organization of the economy that the classical economists advocated greatly strengthened liberalism. They did so, first of all, because they broadened and democratized the values of liberalism, extending them to mercantile, commercial, and laboring classes. Second, they did so because they encouraged forms of social and economic activity that could substitute for more compulsive and bureaucratic techniques of regulation. Thus, the point of Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” was not only that it was “free” and “impersonal” but—equally important—that it was a “system” allowing men to exert their energies both to their own and to the common benefit [seeLaissez-Faire; Smith, Adam].

The English utilitarians and their political allies completed the edifice of classical liberalism. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill accepted the market economy and especially the ideals it served. They accepted, for the most part, the aims but not the methods of the liberalism of 1689. They brought the two species of liberalism together by applying the concepts of utility and the market to politics and the tasks of constitutionalism. Arguing from the hedonistic calculus and the principle of equality, they advocated “the greatest good of the greatest number.” They insisted in law and politics upon general rules that provide for a maximum of free choice and practical liberty for all, or as many as consonant with general utilitarian maxims. And they argued that only education and free speech, inclusive representation and an expanded suffrage, and the regular accountability of the governors to the governed—politics organized on the model of the free economy—could provide constitutional security and good government. English utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham and James Mill, provided a philosophical foundation for political liberalism. It also unified economic liberalism with a theory of positive political action. Properly, this utilitarian doctrine deserves the title of the first comprehensive liberal philosophy [seeBentham; Mill; Utilitarianism].

Classsical liberalism in England owed much of its success to the fact that three liberal traditions— constitutionalism, economic liberalism, and utilitarianism—each developing in a different historic period and having a different group appeal, could be effectively joined in practical politics. Liberalism in England became a party with a broad appeal and sustained its appeal for many years. At the time of the corn law repeal (1846) liberalism in England had its broadest support, including many Whigs, Cobden and Bright liberals, utilitarians, and middle-class and working-class adherents. Probably this alliance marked the natural limits of the older liberalism. It also occupied the common meeting ground of several varieties of liberal program and ideology. Liberalism at this point in England achieved a maximum synthesis of its two competing themes: noninterference and enfranchisement.

Liberalism in Europe and America

Two vital conditions for a classical liberal synthesis existed only in England—a broad liberal movement and a powerful liberal party. In the United States the second condition was missing; on the Continent, the first.

In the United States classical liberalism did not exist, partly because conservatism in the European sense did not exist either. From Europe, Americans inherited the libertarian precepts of the Puritan revolution, the Whig settlement of 1689, and some liberal economic values. These were “received” in the colonial tradition and figured in the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and, broadly, in the politics and jurisprudence of the developing nation. But they were a part of the national heritage and the spirit of the laws, not the self-conscious creed of a party or a class. Liberalism as such did not need to be vindicated, nor did it have a specific role to play. Moreover, liberalism was mixed with other issues of democracy and equality, as, for instance, in the eras of Jefferson and Jackson. When, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social Darwinism and natural-rights jurisprudence were erected into a creed of noninterference and supposed liberty, they were already “ideology” and not “utopia.” America was, then, in large measure the unreflective inheritor of classical liberalism, especially the Lockean variety. Conscious or self-conscious liberalism in America came with the second phase of liberal development—the transition to a modern liberalism.

The classical liberal synthesis was sought in Europe but never fully achieved. Instead of developing into a broad and powerful movement and a comparatively effective political party, European liberalism remained fragmented and sectarian. Civil and religious strife and the slow development of commerce and industry contributed to this result. So did war. The state and the traditions of authority were too strong, liberalism too divided and weak, at the time when a liberal synthesis might have been realized. As a consequence, classical liberalism did not fully develop in Europe; instead several leading liberal creeds arose, which were usually doctrinaire in social philosophy and narrowly based in group support.

In Europe the primary task of securing and protecting the rule of law and constitutionally sanctioned liberties was more difficult. That task tended to become, for some European liberals, almost an end in itself, creating a liberal philosophy that Guido de Ruggiero (1925) has called “guarantism.” Unfortunately, what needed to be guaranteed in the interests of constitutionalism were often ancient liberties and privileges that because of their oligarchic origins and reactionary tendency worked against a more common liberty and the general good. Consequently, one species of European liberalism was decidedly aristocratic, supporting not only liberty but also the inequitable privileges of localities, corporations, and social and religious groups. Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant afford good illustrations of aristocratic liberalism in political theory. The Restoration and the July Monarchy in France and the revolt of 1848 in Germany are historic tragedies of this divided heritage of European liberalism.

Rationalistic and utilitarian liberalism found expression, during the age of reason and afterward, primarily in an appeal for reform from above. The philosophes in France and German liberals such as Goethe and Herder adopted the goals of individualism, widened liberty, and a rational code of laws. They did not associate these objectives with political liberty or popular participation. For some the ideal was enlightened despotism and utilitarian standards, whatever the cost to particular and historic liberties or a constitutional tradition. The reform of civil and administrative institutions for liberal ends took precedence over the liberal method. And the liberal tradition was further divided within itself: some liberals espoused a despotic method, and others such as Rousseau, Fichte, and Mazzini sought the liberal spirit in a “general will” or “the people.” Louis Bonaparte in France and Bismarck in Germany built much of their power upon this division.

In Europe there were liberal economic theorists, such as Jean Baptiste Say, Frederic Bastiat, and Friedrich von Hermann; there were also middle-class political movements and parliamentary factions supporting laissez-faire and free trade. But Europe lacked the well-grown middle class and the economic, legal, and political environment needed to make the cause of economic freedom effective and, more important, to give liberalism a central direction. As a consequence, economic liberalism remained too long the creed of a part of the bourgeoisie and an intellectual preoccupation for scholars and a few publicists. Later, when economic liberalism was both possible and widely adopted— for instance, in the French Third Republic and in unified Italy—that policy served less fully the original liberal objectives of expanding liberty and equalizing opportunity. Economic circumstances made laissez-faire, as socialists protested, not a service to liberty as a whole but to the interests of a comparatively small number of economically advantaged individuals.

At an early stage, in Europe, liberalism failed because it was weak and divided. In the later decades of the nineteenth century it was “too late” for classical liberalism. This is not to say that liberalism was not a vitally needed political and doctrinal element of European society: it was. But liberalism had to appeal to a radically changed world, one in which democracy or republicanism, nationalism, and socialism were the popular gospels.

Modern liberalism

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries classical liberalism and the traditions of thought and policy closely related to it were progressively modified. Later liberalism—especially in Great Britain and the United States, but to some extent almost everywhere in the modern world— has emphasized the positive rather than the negative aspect of liberty: the opportunity to form and accomplish self-appointed goals, rather than freedom from the state. Along with this shifting of proximate goals of liberalism came an adoption of new methods. The central value of the liberated individual, of man as far as possible his own sovereign, did not change; the understanding of that value and of the means for achieving it did.

An important cause of this revision was the success of liberalism itself: the securing of a considerable measure of political and economic liberty and the conversion of liberalism from a sectarian demand for noninterference into a program of political and economic organization. Success raised not only the question, What next? but also, Liberty for whom? Aristocrats and the bourgeoisie now had substantially the bundle of rights they needed. The franchise gave them the means of self-defense. But the same concessions—even when granted—were not enough for the peasant or the worker. Effective liberty for them required more positive action by the state, a fact that conservatives, Catholic social theorists, and Marxian and other socialists pointed out emphatically.

Liberal reorientation came partly through challenge and response, from a need to meet political and philosophical criticism. Liberalism was itself a philosophical and reasonable doctrine and therefore responsive to the new theories of man and society announced by nineteenth-century scientists and made popular by parliamentary inquiry, governmental commissions, and the newspapers. Politics was also important. The varied appeals of Tory Democracy in England, Louis Bonaparte’s imperialism in France, and monarchical socialism in Germany were political forces that could not be ignored. Nor could a liberalism that served principally the bourgeoisie of the French Second Republic or the textile manufacturers of Manchester prosper in an age of the expanded franchise, effective mass communications, and social consciousness. The liberalism that survived after 1848 had, perforce, to accommodate itself to democratic, nationalist, and socialist sentiment.

The growth of cities, of industry, and of national and world-wide commerce also forced revisions of the liberal position. Earlier liberal theory, with its individualistic premises, had contrived a model of man, his institutions, and society that minimized the facts of organizational power, of community cost and benefit, and of national history and common fate. Time progressively falsified that model, especially after the growth of the modern corporation and industrial technology. Great inequalities in market power made one man’s economic freedom another’s oppression. Similarly, free trade in commodities—such as child labor, slum housing, poisoned meat, and bad gin—made the common benefit of regulation obvious. Liberals split among themselves. One group argued for a remedy of abuses other than those perpetrated by the state. Another group clung to the dogmas of nonintervention and free trade. They made the means of liberalism into ends in themselves and liberalism itself into a conservative ideology. Thus, one heir of Bentham and Adam Smith is John Stuart Mill, and another is Herbert Spencer [seeSpencer].

With consciousness of changed circumstances came a major reassessment of the means to liberty. Later liberals assigned greater importance to the social environment within which liberty had to be realized. Their revision of liberalism followed from a recognition that certain forms of coercion and obstacles to liberty arise from society itself rather than the activities of officials. The revision had another important foundation. A society of great economic and social interrelatedness makes access to culture, the capacity to participate, and membership and status in natural and artificial groups increasingly important both to the pursuit of liberty and to its defense. Rousseau and Hegel, and, later, T. H. Green and John Dewey, all argued this theme. Man is in society, the point at which many impinging groups, institutions, and cultural influences intersect. Seldom can he effectively withdraw. He can realize and defend his liberty only by participation. But a live option of participation does not simply happen: it is a social product depending upon education, incentive, opportunity, and a supporting system of political and social values. Modern liberalism tends necessarily, therefore, to be closely associated not only with social reform but with democracy and popular participation.

The modern liberal’s view of the individual is also different from the classical description. It was not merely that the life and goals that suited a Bentham or an English merchant would distress a Coleridge, a Cardinal Newman, and, indeed, even a John Stuart Mill. The earlier liberal view of human nature was two dimensional and overly rational-istic. Nineteenth-century sociology and psychology destroyed that view thoroughly. Modern liberalism has assimilated much of the critique. Liberals today see man not only as an individual in society but as a person with a continuing need for self-expansion and reintegration. For this reason the emphasis of modern liberalism is less upon external impediments to motion and more upon the individual person’s subjective feeling of freedom and those circumstances that give to this feeling an objective reality in the experience of the individual. If a man does not feel free, he is not free. [seePersonality, Political.]

One question that arises is whether modern, or “revised,” liberalism can still appropriately be called liberalism. Liberty and equality, rights and powers are not the same things. Modern liberalism advocates collectivist means, invoking the state in aid of individuals and disadvantaged groups. It has adopted much of the program of democratic and socialist movements. Is modern liberalism still “liberal”? Three considerations argue that this query be answered with a qualified affirmative. In the first place, modern liberalism retains the same end of the autonomous individual that has guided all true liberalism. The means to that end and proximate ends have changed, but the final end remains the same. Second, those changes in method and policy that most writers identify with the expansion and modernization of liberalism have served not only to reduce arbitrary compulsion but also to extend the scope, equalize the distribution, and enrich the liberty enjoyed by individuals. Third, constitutional rights and the rule of law not only survive in the mixed regime of liberty, democracy, and the administrative state but have in some ways grown stronger. They are stronger to the extent that the mixed regime is a representative one—in which the state cannot be used as a tool for the purposes of any one group or class but must serve and be responsive and accountable to all. Certainly, modern liberalism invokes the coercive power of the state. In relation to the state itself men are, in some ways, less free to do with their own as they please. For this reason it is important that the options open to men be many and that the relations of state, society, and individual afford alternate ways of suiting means to essential ends. Pluralism, decentralization, and a variety of relations between the state and society answer to these needs. They probably afford men, given an established welfare state, a better marginal choice in distributing their energies and opting for one of several modes of liberty than ever before in history. [seeWelfare State.]

The future of liberalism

Although liberalism has been important to Western civilization, it may not continue to be so. Since the two world wars, many argue, liberalism has been in decline. Liberalism means less, so the argument runs, to the developing nations, to the semi-socialist states of western Europe, to a world menaced with war and preoccupied with material benefit. Liberal parties and liberal ideology, it could also be argued, have served their function. The programs they supported have been adopted by others who have gone further. Historic liberalism survives only as a temper or mood of politics.

Liberal parties and liberal movements have been on the wane. In the British Commonwealth and Europe they have not fared well since World War II. Some maintain their electoral following, but mainly by altering their liberal stance. Specific movements, such as the neoliberalism of Germany and the Low Countries or the Mouvement Republicain Populaire of France, show an attrition of membership, unity, and purpose. The conclusion that liberalism as an organized party or self-conscious movement is for the present in decline is warranted by the facts. In no place, presently, are liberal parties or liberal movements gaining significantly in organized power or appeal.

Liberal policies have also received scant support among developing nations struggling for independence and material prosperity. The conditions that made Adam Smith’s strategy of liberty suitable for England are missing today. Even such countries as Mexico and India, which seem determined to save liberty, are far from classical liberalism and even from more modern versions of liberalism. They are nationalistic and socialistic in many of their policies and are so by conscious intent and design.

The cold war has also weakened liberalism. In the short run, the communist challenge threatens liberty and constitutionalism directly. In the longer run, the danger is more insidious: external threats evoke response; and response demands collective effort. That effort is stimulated by nonliberal incentives and appeals: appeals to national purpose and common action and the incentives of a war economy. Liberty is not broken; but it shrinks. Liberalism is not vanquished; but it is not pursued. If, as John Stuart Mill said, “things left to themselves inevitably decay,” the threat is greater than at first sight it appears. The danger to liberalism is not that it will be openly destroyed but that it will be forgotten or perverted.

From these facts it does not follow that liberalism is unimportant for the future. The importance of the liberal temper and of liberal principles applied to politics has not diminished; probably it has increased. Liberalism thrives on material prosperity, social peace, and common enlightenment. In the programs of the nations of western Europe immediately after World War II liberalism did not have a prominent place, nor has it been important in the programs of the developing nations. These nations have been engaged in creating the conditions of material prosperity and economic security. Hopefully, their labor will eventually bear fruit in comparatively stable, pluralistic democracies and welfare economies capable of providing security and abundance for their populations. Such developments would not make liberalism outmoded. They would, in fact, make it possible and profitable: for they make it possible to realize liberty along with abundance and social justice; and they make the finer qualities of human relations increasingly accessible and valuable to all.

David G. Smith

[See alsoConservatism; Constitutions AND Constitutionalism; Democracy; Equality; freedom; laissez-faire; Utilitarianism; Welfare STATE; andthe biography of MILL. Other relevant material may be found inEconomic THOUGHTandPolitical THEORY.]


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Girvetz, harry K. (1950) 1963 The Evolution of Liberalism. Rev. ed. New York: Collier. → First published as From Wealth to Welfare: The Evolution of Liberalism.

HalÉvy, Élie (1901-1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Hartz, Louis 1955 The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt.

Hayek, Frederick A. VON 1960 The Constitution of Liberty. Univ. of Chicago Press; London: Routledge.

Hobhouse, Leonard T. (1911) 1945 Liberalism. Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.

Hughes, Emmet J. 1944 The Church and Liberal Society. Princeton Univ. Press.

Keynes, John M. 1926 The End of Laissez-faire. London: Woolf.

Laski, Harold J. (1936) 1958 The Rise of European Liberalism: An Essay in Interpretation. London: Allen ' Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Barnes ' Noble.

Locke, John (1689) 1963 A Letter Concerning Toleration: Latin and English Texts. . .. The Hague: Nij-hoff. → First published as Epistola de tolerantia.

Locke, John (1690) 1960 Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mill, John Stuart (1859) 1963 On Liberty. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

Polanyi, Karl 1944 The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon. Also published in 1945 by Gollancz under the title Origins of Our Time.

Ruggiero, Guido DE (1925) 1927 The History of European Liberalism. Oxford: Collingwood. → First published as Storia del liberalismo europeo. A paper-back edition was published in 1959 by Beacon.

Watkins, Frederick 1948 The Political Tradition of the West.-A Study in the Development of Modern Liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.


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Liberalism is an ideological and socio-political movement uniting the adherents of representative government and freedom of the individual in politics with freedom of enterprise in economics. It emerged in Western Europe in the age of struggle against absolutism and the spiritual domination of the Catholic Church (17th–18th centuries). The fundamentals of the Liberal ideology were laid by the advocates of the moderate wing of the European Enlightenment, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Voltaire. A relevant slogan was formulated, laissez faire, laissez passer, implying "don't impede," alluding to non-interference in the economy on the part of the state. In the 19th century this became a basic principle of classical liberalism whose theoretical foundations were set down by the English economists, Adam Smith and David *Ricardo. The bourgeoisie was the main social stratum supporting liberal ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries. The more radical wing of Liberalism, connected with the democratic movement, played an important role in the American and French revolutions.

However, already at the end of the 18th century a conflict arose between the Liberals and the Radical Democrats. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later Jacobins, such as Henri Constante and François Guizot, were the first to formulate a more or less rigid policy of Liberalism during the period of the Restoration in France. Liberalism now emerged as a doctrine based on definite historical premises.

The political doctrine of European Liberalism in the first half of the 19th century preferred the idea of the freedom of the individual to the idea of people's rule, and it preferred the constitutional monarchy to the republic. When the electoral right became more widespread, the difference between Liberal and democratic movements vanished. In the light of social and economic changes at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the workers' movement grew. As a result of this and other factors, Liberalism underwent a crisis and had to reject several key principles of its doctrine, in particular laissez-faire.

The European Liberals of the 19th century, as the spiritual heirs of the Enlightenment ideology, cherished the principles of tolerance of other people's beliefs, the separation of Church and State, and as a rule supported the idea of the Emancipation of the Jews. However, the inherent rationalism in the movement demanded preconditions for granting equal rights to the Jews, namely "improving the Jews," or "re-forming Judaism."

The way of life of the Jews in Western and Central Europe changed in the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th, and a growing number of Jews was prepared to comply with such demands. They accepted the Liberal principle that the State, based on a social contract, must guarantee rights to everyone who is prepared to fulfill his or her duty to the State.

This was advantageous for the Jews because it meant the development of free competition and the abolishment of medieval monopolies and guilds from which the Jews had been excluded. This led the strata who suffered from the abolition of the traditional social order to view the Liberal economic system, especially its radical forms such as "Manchesterism," as serving the mercenary interests of the plutocratic Jews. Thus, the discontent resulting from the policies of the Liberal economy appeared as a source of modern antisemitism. The early advocates of socialism, for their part, criticized the negative consequences of unlimited competition, and many of them, including Moses *Hess and Karl *Marx in their early works, also equated capitalism and Judaism.

In all countries where Liberals supported the principle of equal rights for the Jews, the latter actively supported the Liberal parties which during the first half of the 19th century conducted severe struggles with the Conservatives. The Jews were in the vanguard of the struggle for political freedom and civil rights.

Great Britain

Each country had its own brand of Liberalism depending on its historic development. Great Britain, the classical country of Liberalism, emancipated its Jews gradually, without revolutionary turns, and the process closely followed the general liberalization of the political system. The restrictions on Jewish rights – Jews were not admitted to Parliament and municipalities or to the universities, and they could not pursue a legal career – were a result of the dominant position of the Church of England. The demand to pronounce an oath "by the true Christian beliefs" meant that State positions and some industrial corporations were closed to Jews. The economic prosperity of some English Jews, such as the *Rothschild, *Montefiore, and *Goldsmid families, brought them into the higher circles of English society while their political rights were still severely limited.

In 1829 the British Parliament adopted a Bill on Catholic Emancipation, and Jewish public figures, supported by leading parliamentarians, decided to bring up the question of equal rights for the Jews. The Liberal member of Parliament, Sir Robert Grant, proposed in the House of Commons a draft bill on granting equal rights to all Jews born in England. During the debates in the House of Commons the Liberal deputies, for instance, the historian Thomas Macauley, welcomed the idea of equal rights for Jews. The Liberal governments of Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston initiated the parliamentary struggle for Jewish emancipation.

William Gladstone, eventually leader of the Liberal party, first joined the Conservatives and voted against the bill granting equal rights to Jews. However, he later changed his stance. With time the Jews also managed to participate in Liberal governments. The traditional devotion of the English Jews to the Liberal party was broken only in the 1870s when Benjamin *Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield) headed a Conservative government. He attracted a significant number of Jewish voters to the Conservatives.

After Edward vii became king in 1901, and the Liberal party won the 1906 parliamentary election, some Jewish figures gained significant political and economic influence. They were mainly financiers and businessmen connected with the Liberal party.

In the years before and during World War i two Jewish politicians played an important part in the cabinets of Asquith and Lloyd George: they were Rufus Isaacs (later becoming Lord *Reading) and Herbert Samuel, subsequently the first British high commissioner in Mandatory Palestine.


In France, Liberalism in the period of the Restoration was a doctrine opposed to both feudal reaction and democracy. Although the Constitutional party of Louis xviii declared Catholicism a State religion in 1814, it granted to all citizens the freedom of belief, and the rights of the Jews were in no way handicapped. Still, the Bourbon monarchy did not pay salaries to the rabbis from the State budget. The July Revolution of 1830 eliminated this remnant of inequality. The Louis-Phillipe monarchy brought into practice the principles of a moderate Liberalism after the English pattern. When in 1835 the government of the Canton of Basle in Switzerland refused to allow a French Jew to acquire real estate in the area of the canton, the French government, convinced by the argument of the Jewish political figure Isaac-Adolphe *Crémieux, decided to adopt strong political sanctions against the canton.

When Crémieux expressed the gratitude of the French Jews to the French government, King Louis-Philippe declared that he was happy to teach Europe the lesson of a just attitude towards Jews. The king also expressed the hope that other people would follow the example of France.

In this period capitalism rapidly expanded in France, as a result of which a group of big Jewish financiers emerged connected with Liberal circles.

The 1848 Revolution in France contributed much to the practical realization of equal rights for Jews. The Jewish participation in the political life of the country grew and the Provisional Liberal Government created by the Revolution had two Jewish ministers: Crémieux, minister of justice, and Michel *Goudchaux, minister of finance.

In the age of the Second Empire more moderate opponents of the regime gathered under the banner of the Liberal party. Napoleon iii collaborated with the political Jewish figures who, however, did not belong to the Republican wing, and Goudchaux was succeeded as minister of finance by another Jew, monarchist-minded Achille *Fould.

From the time of the Second Monarchy, Liberalism in France was closely linked with the idea of a republic. After the fall of Napoleon iii, Crémieux occupied the post of minister of justice in the Government of National Defense, where he actively supported Leon Gambetta, the head of the government. In this period Crémieux was responsible for the law granting civil equality to the Jews of Algeria.

Liberalism in France always advocated the assimilation of Jews, and the Jewish Liberals struggled only for civil rights and freedom of religious belief. Nevertheless, among the Jewish assimilationists there was formulated a new concept of Jewish solidarity throughout the world which found its expression in the *Alliance Israélite Universelle established in 1860.

In the Third Republic, the main representative of Liberalism was the party of Radical Socialists. While fighting clericalism in the 1880s, the government of the Republic did not resort to anti-Jewish discrimination; on the contrary, Jews were appointed to high administrative posts.

In the mid-1880s, all the opponents of the Republic united under the banner of antisemitism. The *Dreyfus Affair was the culmination of the struggle of clerical and monarchic reaction against the Republic. The defeat of the antisemites contributed to the strengthening of Republican rule. The law on the separation of Church and State adopted in 1905 was a triumph of Liberal principles.

In subsequent French policy, Liberalism always stood out as a political force supporting the Republic and democracy against the onslaughts of reaction which invariably fought under the banner of antisemitism. In the 20th century the latter acquired the features of *fascism. In the political life of the Fourth and then the Fifth Republic, Liberal ideology of a reformed nature served different non-socialist parties rather than being represented by a single party.


In Germany Liberalism was closely connected with the struggle for national unification. Prussia adopted in 1812 a decree on the emancipation of Jews sponsored by the reformist activities of the government of Stein and Hardenberg. However, the reaction which seized Germany after its victory over Napoleon resulted in an outburst of anti-Jewish feelings in almost all German states.

The July Revolution of 1830 in France also sparked off Liberal trends in Germany. The progressive elements began to support bills on expanding Jewish rights in Landtags of several South German states: Bavaria, Wuerttemberg, and Baden. However, even in Baden, the state with the most Liberal constitution at the time, the demand was put forward that the Jews should renounce their national and religious identity to be entitled to emancipation. Baden Liberals spoke against emancipation, and only on the eve of the 1848 Revolution did the Second House of the Baden Landtag adopt the resolution recommending the government to consider the petition on equality of Jews. All such petitions had been previously rejected by the Lower House. Gabriel *Riesser worked hard in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews. As a staunch fighter for Jewish rights, he refuted all arguments of the opponents of emancipation, but at the same time he rejected the existence of a Jewish nationality.

The Revolution of 1848 constituted a breakthrough in the attitudes of the Central European countries, although already in pre-Revolution times some German states with liberal constitutions, such as Kurhessen and Wuerttemberg, had undertaken certain steps in the direction of emancipation of Jews, but other states, such as Saxony and Hanover, had not relaxed on Jewish rights.

The Jews took an active part in the revolutionary fighting in Vienna and Berlin in 1848. In the all-German Parliament convened in May 1848 in Frankfurt-on-Main, several Jewish deputies took part including Riesser, the veteran of Emancipation struggle, who was subsequently elected deputy chairman of the parliament. Although Riesser managed to include a statement on the equality of all citizens before the law in the Declaration of Rights of German People adopted by the Frankfurt Parliament, this declaration never included an imperial constitution. However, many of the basic rights imposed by the Revolution left their trace in the constitutions of various German states. Thus in the Prussian Constitution "granted" by the king in December 1848, the item on equality was preserved, although equality was never in fact realized.

The period of reaction in Germany in the 1850s did not abolish the constitutional clauses on equality, but the attempt was made to curtail the areas of their implementation as far as possible. Prussia was again declared a "Christian State" and the civil rights of Jews were restricted. Reaction had its impact even on those German states which had belonged to the Liberal wing before the 1848 Revolution.

Only toward the end of the 1850s the reaction began to subside. In the election to the Prussian Landtag the Liberals came out victorious. Ludwig *Philippson – editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums published by the Jewish community – initiated a petition to the House of Deputies for the implementation of equality. The petition, supported by the Liberals, was handed to the government, but had little impact on its policy.

The Conservative Junker government of Otto Bismarck, who was appointed prime minister in 1862, impeded the implementation of equality for Jews by struggling against Liberalism, especially against the so-called German Progressive party, one of whose leaders was the Jewish radical Johann *Jacoby. The battling of Bismarck's government against Liberalism ceased only with the approach of the military conflict with Austria in 1866.

Prussia's victory, paving the way to the unification of Germany, indirectly contributed to the cause of emancipation. Four Jews entered the Reichstag of the North-German Confederation established under Prussian hegemony. They included Eduard *Lasker who left the Progressive party to join the National Liberals, supporters of Bismarck's policy of unification of Germany.

Four hundred and twelve Jewish communities in the North-German Confederation turned to the Reichstag petitioning for the implementation of the principle of Jewish equality. The petition was rejected, however, in 1867 on the grounds that it interfered in the internal affairs of the separate states. Lasker also voted for the rejection of the petition: united Germany was more important to him than the granting of equal rights to Jews. The most prominent Liberal leaders who defended the principle of Jewish equality in the Reichstag were non-Jewish members of the Progressive party. Eventually they managed to achieve their aim when the Reichstag, and then the government, formally rejected all limitations on civil and political rights resulting from differences of belief (1869).

Emancipation was first adopted and gradually implemented by the North-German states and later by the South-German states. The coming to power of the Liberal government in Bavaria in 1859 enhanced the implementation of emancipation, although the political emancipation of the Jews of Bavaria was completed only in 1872.

Eduard Lasker, leader of the National Liberal Party, and his comrade Ludwig *Bamberger, previously a Radical republican, played a significant part in the Reichstag of the German Empire established after the victory over France in 1870. However, the switch of the Bismarck government to conservative policies in the mid-1870s, and the shift of the National Liberals to the right pushed Lasker and Bamberger into the opposition.

Bamberger published a brochure Germans and Jews in 1880 directed against the antisemitic attack of Heinrich von Treitschke, the National Liberal historian. In his brochure Bamberger attempted to prove that the German people as a whole could not be considered responsible for the actions of a group artificially inflaming anti-Jewish hatred. The Liberal Jews joined the so-called party of free-thinkers adhering to the principles of Liberalism. The reactionaries named this party "Jewish Defense Brigade" (Judenschutztruppe).

In the religious field, Liberalism in Germany was associated first with *Reform in Judaism, and then with the right to complete indifference to religion, a notion which was legally confirmed by the law of 1876 determining the right to leave the Jewish community without any obligation to join another religious community.

Liberal Jews took an active part in the political life of the Weimar Republic. Hugo *Preuss held the post of minister of interior, and headed the committee for drafting the constitution which Liberal circles welcomed as the embodiment of the spirit of democracy. The minister of foreign affairs of the Weimar Republic, Walter *Rathenau, also a Jew, was killed by nationalist conspirators.

Liberalism in Germany fell victim to Nazi tyranny. After the crushing of Nazism, it revived and began to play a role in the political life of the Federal German Republic. However, it has not crystallized a definitive position regarding Jews, Zionism, and the State of Israel.


In Austria, where after 1815 absolutism suffered no limitations, the restrictions on Jewish rights continued. Bureaucracy regulated Jewish life, and the Jews were subject to special taxation.

In 1839–1840 the Jewish intellectuals of Hungary instigated the struggle for Emancipation, pinpointing at the same time their quest for assimilation. However, nationalistic-minded Hungarian Liberals did not support the idea of Emancipation for Jews. Lajos Kossuth, leader of the Hungarian National Liberation movement, attempted to prove the impossibility of granting equality to Jews unless they radically reformed their religion so that it would resemble Christianity in everyday life (meaning abolition of kashrut, Sabbath observance, etc.).

In the March 1848 revolution the Viennese rabbi Isaac Noah *Mannheimer sought to convince Jews not to demand emancipation, which he considered the logical consequence of the victory of Liberal principles but the initiative for which should come from non-Jews. The opponents of Jewish emancipation claimed that the Jews were not an integral part of the nation, and therefore they could not be granted equality.

In July 1848 the Constituent Reichstag convened in Vienna had a number of Jewish members including Adolf *Fischhof, Mannheimer, and Joseph *Goldmark. Two Jewish members, Ignaz *Kuranda and Moritz *Hartmann, were delegates to the All-Union Parliament in Frankfurt.

In the Hungarian National Assembly Kossuth expressed his opinion that granting equality to Jews was untimely. The anti-Jewish pogroms in Pressburg (Bratislava) and other Hungarian towns forced the Assembly to reject the Liberal resolution on granting Jews voting rights. The Jews could also not join the Hungarian National Guard.

In the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary formed in 1867, both parts acknowledged constitutionally the civil and political equality of all peoples and all beliefs. Only a few Jews were elected to the Reichstag and the provincial assemblies. In the 1870s Kuranda was a Reichstag member, representing the German Liberal party, but no more. Bound by party discipline, he had no opportunity to struggle systematically in parliament for implementing formally the principle of Jewish equality.

Neither the German Liberal Party nor the Polish Kolo was willing to combat the increasing impact of antisemites in the Reichstag, state assemblies, and municipalities. Many Austrian Jews found that their former Liberal allies could not be relied upon when it came to the implementation of civil equality.

Jewish voices came to be heard calling for a break with "treacherous" Liberals and the adoption of an independent Jewish policy. In reaction to European antisemitism Theodor *Herzl published his The Jewish State. Herzl's outlook and his political ideas on the structure of the future Jewish state were formulated under the direct impact of the notions of European liberalism.

In the elections of 1900 the Jews of Vienna continued to vote mostly for the Liberals although some supported the Social Democrats. While the majority of the Jewish members did not support nationalist policies, they were sympathetic to the Czech People's Party led by Thomas Garrigue *Masaryk which, unlike other Liberal parties, included in its program an item granting the Jews the right to conduct their nationalist policy.


Emancipation of the Jews in Italy, as well as in Germany, was closely linked with the struggle for liberation of the country. Liberalism in Italy was first and foremost a struggle against the domination of the Catholic Church. The unification of Italy for the majority of Liberals meant the federation of the Italian states. Various revolutionary groups connected with Mazzini and Garibaldi set more radical goals. This was also the case with the Liberal Party of Piedmont (Kingdom of Sardinia) which played the leading role in the struggle for unification of Italy. Jewish emancipation in Piedmont occurred earlier than in other Italian states, namely in March–June 1848.

The Italian provinces which rebelled against Austrian rule – Venice and Lombardy – not only granted Jews equality, but elected them members of parliaments and governments. The provisional Republican Government of Venice was headed by the Italian patriot Daniele *Manin who was of Jewish origin. His government had two Jewish members: the minister of trade, Leone Pincherle, and the minister of finance, Isaac Maurogonato. The Parliament of Venice had eight Jewish members. In other Italian states where Liberal constitutions were adopted in 1848, such as Tuscany and Modena, the equality of Jews automatically came into force.

In Piedmont, the leaders of the ruling Liberal party invariably supported the idea of Jewish equality. In 1849 Massimo d'Azeglio became prime minister of Piedmont. He authored the book, entitled On Civic Equality of Jews, published on the eve of the Revolution. His successor, Count E. Cavour, also fought for the cause of Jewish equality: his secretary, Isaac *Artom, member of a distinguished Italian Jewish family, later became a prominent diplomat and statesman.

The unification of Italy, under the hegemony of Piedmont, led to the establishment of Jewish equality throughout the country and many Jews were active on the political scene. In 1910 Luigi *Luzzatti headed the Italian government. The triumph of Liberalism was accompanied by the rapid acculturation of the Jews in Italy, many of whom supported the Liberal party.

United States

In the United States the principles of Liberalism guided the country's Constitution and its political culture. No Liberal party as such has ever acquired political power in the U.S. but Liberal political figures have acted, as a rule, in the framework of the two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.

In the contemporary American political lexicon, the adherents of the so-called Welfare State are considered liberals, that is, they support social reforms and state intervention in the economy on behalf of economically deprived strata of the population, oppose racial discrimination, and adopt a "moderate" orientation in foreign policy. Contemporary American liberalism has rejected the principle of laissez-faire and approached European social democracy. Jews have been widely represented in the ranks of American liberals.

In the 1930s American liberalism associated itself with the New Deal of President Franklin D. *Roosevelt and with the Democratic party. A small Liberal party was founded in New York by several leaders including David *Dubinsky. In presidential elections it usually supported the Democratic nominees. The majority of American Jews invariably voted for Roosevelt and the liberal stance of U.S. Jewry on political questions became a tradition. For a long period the overwhelming majority of Jews continued to vote for the nominees of the Democratic Party and the Jews played a significant part in its liberal wing. Despite various counter-influences, including the affluence of American Jewry, their political stance has remained strongly liberal.


In Russia, due to the unique circumstances, first, noblemen, and afterwards, intelligentsia of lower strata were the main proponents of liberal views. The country's economic backwardness, the weakness of its bourgeoisie, and their dependence on the protectionist policy of the state led to a situation in which adherence to the principle of laissez-faire was – unlike in the West – not a basic principle.

During the first part of the 19th century so-called Western-minded figures, such as Timofey Granovsky and K. Kavelin, embraced Liberal ideas. In the age of "The Great Reforms" of the 1860s Russian Liberalism crystallized as an ideological movement opposed, on one hand, to Conservatism and, on the other, to revolutionary Radicalism.

The atmosphere of "The Great Reforms" contributed to growing assimilatory trends among the Jewish intelligentsia. However, already toward the end of the 1860s, the Liberal hopes for the peaceful introduction of a Constitutional system were disappointed. The implementation of reforms was delayed and, as a consequence, the revolutionary movement gained momentum. Part of the intellectuals joined the revolutionary populists (narodniks). The pogroms of the 1880s clearly shattered the illusion of the hopes of the assimilators that they could "merge" with the Russian people, and they also contributed to the nationalist revival among Russian Jewry.

The nationalist feelings among the Russian Jews were also the result of the detached and sometimes even supportive attitude of the representatives of the different political movements to the pogroms. Only a few figures in Russian Liberalism at the time condemned the pogroms and antisemitism. The Liberal philosopher Vladimir Solovyov was one such exception and evinced a profound understanding of the Jewish question. However, toward the end of the 19th century, the views of some sections of Russian society underwent a visible change regarding the Jewish question and all wings of the Liberalizing movement condemned the antisemitism as used by the Czarist government as a weapon in its struggle against revolutionary and liberal forces.

Liberalism in Russia appeared on the political scene as an organized political movement only at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1903 two movements were established: the Union of Liberation and the Union of Land-Constitutionalists which in 1905 united to form the Constitutional-Democratic Party (Kadet), the main party of Russian Liberalism. Fighting for civil equality for Jews, the Russian liberals, as well as the majority of socialists, considered assimilation a positive phenomenon. They did not encourage those Jews seeking a solution of their plight in collective nationalist independence. Non-socialist Jewry circles were politically attracted to the Kadet liberals. In 1904–05 Kadets initiated a campaign which laid the foundation for the establishment in March 1905 of the Union for Achieving the Equality of the Jewish People in Russia. This Union put forward both general democratic and specifically Jewish national demands. During the elections to the First State Assembly (Duma) the majority of the Jewish voters supported the Constitutional-Democratic Party.

In the First Duma, the Kadets appeared as the only party struggling for Jewish equality (the Socialist parties boycotted the elections). Many Jews appeared in the Kadet ranks, including Maxim *Vinawer, Henry *Sliozberg, and Shmarya *Levin. Nine of the 12 Jews elected to the Duma belonged to the Kadets.

The Union for Achieving Equality for the Jews of Russia split as a result of the decision of the Zionists to go to the elections as an independent party. The Jewish People's Group, established in 1907, consisted mostly of the Jewish Kadets. This Group put forward demands considered moderate compared with those of other Jewish parties and did not support the convening of a Jewish National Assembly. The Jewish People's Party (Folkspartei), organized at the end of 1906, joined the Liberals on general political issues.

After the dissolution of the First Duma, the Jewish Liberal members M. Gertzenstein and G.B. Yollos were killed by "Black Hundred" reactionaries. The machinations of the reactionaries resulted in a sharp drop in the number of Kadets in the Second Duma. The election to the Third Duma was conducted according to a new election law which enabled the authorities to reduce to a great extent the number of Jewish voters. Of the four Jewish members of the Second Duma, three belonged to the Kadet Party; both Jewish members of the Third Duma belonged to the Kadets. The representation of small Jewish parties collaborating with Kadets was also reduced.

Despite the fact that the Liberal movement had always spoken out for Jewish equality, discrimination against Jews never ceased. All the progressive camp opposed antisemitism but even certain Liberals disapproved of the "excessive" participation of the Jews in Russian culture. In an age of reaction, they put forward the slogan of a-Semitism, meaning indifference to the national needs of Russian Jews. The *Beilis Affair, provoked by Black Hundred Guards with the assistance of the authorities, became the focus of the struggle around "the Jewish Question" involving the Czarist government, on the one hand, and all the forces of the Liberal and radical opposition, on the other. Beilis' acquittal was viewed by public opinion in Russia and abroad as the victory of progressive forces over the Black Hundred reactionaries.

In the period of World War i which brought new calamities to Russian Jewry, Jewish leaders tried to evince the sympathies of Liberal and Radical members of the Duma. All the Jewish political factions united to struggle against antisemitism. Some Liberal public figures including Pavel Milyukov condemned the anti-Jewish policies of the military authorities, but did not consider it advisable to express new criticism openly in war time.

Nevertheless, the Conference of the Party for People's Freedom (Kadets) unanimously adopted in June 1915 a resolution, following the opinion of Vinawer, which unreservedly condemned the persecution of Jews. The progressive bloc, established on the Kadets' initiative in the framework of the Duma in August 1915, put forward a program stipulating the gradual expansion of Jewish rights: further steps to liquidate the Pale of Settlement, the reduction of the Jewish quota for higher educational establishments, and the cancellation of restrictions on Jewish occupations. But the implementation of the program was postponed indefinitely and the inactivity of the Progressive Bloc on the Jewish question was sharply criticized by the leftist parties.

After the February Revolution of 1917 liquidated all types of Jewish inequality, Russian Liberalism had to retreat under the pressure of Radical forces demanding expansion of the Revolution and the self-determination of all nationalities of the Russian Empire. The October upheaval ended Liberalism as a political force in Russia.


In the 19th century Liberalism acted as the leading political force in many European countries, but in the 20th century it lost its former significance. In the second half of the 20th century it regained some of its former influence, especially in its renovated program supporting the welfare state, among the Jewish communities of Europe and of North and South America, as well as in the communities of South Africa and Australia. At the same time the influence of radical Socialist and Communist movements and factions in those communities gradually decreased.

[Naftali Prat /

Shorter Jewish Encyclopedia in Russian]


views updated Jun 11 2018


By definition, a liberal is one who believes in liberty, but because different people at different times have meant different things by liberty, "liberalism" is correspondingly ambiguous. The word was first heard in a political sense in England in the early nineteenth century, when "liberals" were thus named by their Tory opponents. Indeed, they were first called liberales, and the Spanish form was used "with the intention of suggesting that the principles of those politicians were un-English" (see Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ). This was ironical, since the word liberal had been adopted by the Spaniards for policies they regarded as essentially Englishthat is, the Lockean principles of constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, and the rights of man. In any event, the Englishmen who were called liberals (though as late as 1816 Robert Southey was still calling them liberales ) rejoiced in the name, and what was intended to be a pejorative quickly proved to have a distinctly pleasing flavor, perhaps partly because its other significance, the Shakespearean sense of liberal as "gross" or "licentious," had given way to the modern sense of liberal as "bountiful," "generous," or "open-hearted."

English Liberalism

Traditional English liberalism has rested on a fairly simple concept of libertynamely, that of freedom from the constraints of the state. In Thomas Hobbes's memorable phrase, "The liberties of subjects depend on the silence of the law." In general, however, English liberals have always been careful not to press this notion to anarchist extremes. They have regarded the state as a necessary institution, ensuring order and law at home, defense against foreign powers, and security of possessionsthe three principles John Locke summarized as "life, liberty and property." English liberals have also maintained that the law can be used to extend the liberties of subjects insofar as the law is made to curb and limit the activities of the executive government. Thus, for example, the English laws of habeas corpus, of bail, and of police entry and arrest all constrain or restrain the executive and, in so doing, increase the freedom of the people. Some instruments of constitutional law have a similar effect.

The traditional form of English political liberalism naturally went hand in hand with the classical economic doctrine of laissez-faire. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, certain radical movements and certain English liberal theorists, such as Matthew Arnold and T. H. Green, developed, partly under foreign, left-wing influences, a differentas they claimed, a broaderconcept of freedom, which was, to a large extent, to prove more popular in the twentieth century than traditional English liberalism with its economic gospel of laissez-faire. The central aim of this new school was utilitariannamely, freeing men from misery and ignorance. Its exponents believed that the state must be the instrument by which this end was to be achieved. Hence, English liberal opinion entered the twentieth century in a highly paradoxical condition, urging, on the one hand, a freedom that was understood as freedom from the constraints of the state and, on the other, an enlargement of the state's power and control in order to liberate the poor from the oppressive burdens of poverty. In the political sphere this contradiction in the liberal ideology ended in the disintegration of the British Liberal Party. With the defeat of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a disciple of the philosopher T. H. Green and an adept at reconciling contradictions, the British Liberal Party broke into two, the right-wing, or laissez-faire, element joining forces with conservatism and the radical, étatiste element merging with socialism. Only a "rump" remained.

French Liberalism

The ambiguity of the word liberalism is more marked in French than in any other European language. Some writers hold that as a result of events in France since the time of Louis XIV, the French people have been divided into two political camps: One that supports the Roman Catholic Church, traditional social patterns, and the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) and one that opposes the church and favors parliament, progress, and the rights of man. Historians who see France in these terms call one side conservateur, the other libéral. Opposed to this view are those historians who see not two, but at least three, continuing traditions in French political thought: on the right, royalism and conservativism; on the left, socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, and communism; in the center, liberalism. In the first of these two analyses, libéralisme is understood to embrace all the creeds of the left; according to the second analysis, libéralisme is a political doctrine at variance with the creeds of the left.

Again, one can distinguish two distinctindeed, opposingschools among French theorists who claim to be liberal. One is the Lockean liberalism of Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu, and Benjamin Constant (in effect, also that of François Guizot and the July monarchy of Louis Philippe)the liberalism of the minimal state, individualism, and laissez-faire. But there is a second liberalism, represented by the masters of the French Revolution and by the youthful Napoleon Bonaparte, which is democratic, Rousseauesque, and étatiste. Whereas Lockean liberalism understands freedom as being left alone by the state, the other liberalism sees freedom as ruling oneself through the medium of a state that one has made one's own.

Both these schools of libéralisme contributed something to the ideology of the French Revolution, and the often unperceived contradiction between them may also be said to have contributed to the intellectual confusion of those times. The fall of Napoleon was the signal for a return to the more purely Lockean style of liberalism. Benjamin Constant not only insisted that Jean-Jacques Rousseau's concept of liberty was an illusory one but also maintained that "Du Contrat Social [1762] so often invoked in favour of liberty, is the most formidable ally of all despotisms." Constant and his friends desired only to reproduce in France the Lockean Glorious Revolution of 1688. In 1830 they believed they had succeeded; Louis Philippe was enthroned on the basis of an understanding very like that on which William and Mary had been crowned in England. Politicians such as Guizot, who called themselves Libéraux, were put in charge of the kingdom. The result was not inspiring. A new bourgeoisie basked in the liberty the Lockean state introduced; the great were diminished, but the poor were not elevated. A rebellion came from the left in 1848, and the right replied with Napoleon III. Henceforth, there were few self-styled Libéraux of any importance in French politics and no liberal party. When new parties were formed later in the century, the name chosen by the center was Republicain rather than Libéral. This is not to say that liberalism died in France in 1848; rather, the word libéralisme thereafter ceased to call to the minds of French-speaking people any clear or distinct idea.

In 1912 Émile Faguet published a celebrated work, Le libéralisme, in which he took a rigidly Lockean position. "The state," he wrote, "is an evil; a lesser evil than anarchy, but nevertheless to be limited to the tasks of securing public order and safety through the justiciary, police and army." Several critics at the time attacked Faguet's definition as being outmoded; nevertheless, the definition of libéralisme in the 1935 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française is, like Faguet's, thoroughly Lockean; it defines libéralisme in terms of the citizen's right to freedom of thought and to protection from government interference in private and business affairs.

One of several French theorists who attacked Faguet's exposition of liberalism (and, by implication, the academy's definition) was Jean de Grandvilliers. "How the word 'liberalism' is perverted by those who treat it as synonymous with individualism!" he wrote in Essai sur le libéralisme allemand (1925). "We can only reply by giving the word its true meaning." According to Grandvilliers, the true meaning of liberalism is to be found in a policy of extending the liberty of the people; he maintained that the intervention of the state is not only a useful, but also a necessary, means to achieve that end. Grandvilliers is thus a champion of the étatiste school of liberalism, which derived its concept of liberty from Rousseau and which argued that as long as the state belongs to the people, the enlargement of the power of the state is equally an enlargement of the power, and therefore the freedom, of its citizens.

German Liberalism

The word liberal was first heard in Germany in 1812, going there, as it went to England, from Spain. But the last years of Napoleon's power marked the decline of one tradition of German liberalism and the beginning of a new one. For in Germany, as elsewhere, we may discern not a single doctrine of liberalism but at least two main, conflicting schools, which again may be classified as the Lockean and the étatiste. The older German tradition was not merely derivatively Lockean; it also had contributed much to the formulation of Locke's own thought. In the sixteenth century it was a German philosopher, Johannes Althusius, who proclaimed that sovereignty derived from the people, and it was the German Naturrechts school of jurists that provided the bridge between the Stoic concept of jus naturale and the Lockean doctrine of the rights of man. But Locke, in turn, influenced the eighteenth-century German liberals, among whom Wilhelm von Humboldt was perhaps the most conspicuous. The very title of his book Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen (Ideas toward an investigation to determine the proper limits of the activity of the state; 1792), reveals his preoccupation with limited sovereignty and the minimal state. In this work Humboldt argued that the function of the state is not to do good but to ward off evil, notably the evil that springs from man's disregard for his neighbors' rights. The state, he said, "must not proceed a step further than is necessary for the mutual security of citizens and protection against foreign enemies; for no other object should it impose restrictions on freedom." Eighteenth-century Germany also had several liberal economists, including Christian Kraus, who considered that Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) was the most important book after the Bible.

In the nineteenth century a new school of liberalism, which was first and foremost nationalistic, arose in Germany. The freedom it stood for was the freedom of Germany, and the condition of the realization of this national freedom was the unification of Germany. Thus, whereas the old Lockean liberals were against the state, the new nationalist liberals wanted to create a greater state. The French declaration of 1789 proclaimed the rights of man; the German liberals inspired in 1848 a declaration of the rights of the German people. The new German liberals thought in terms of collective, rather than individual, rights. Thus, the étatiste German liberals saw nothing incongruous in sending a mission in 1849 from the Frankfurt parliament to Berlin to offer the crown of all Germany to a Prussian monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm, who detested democracy and who, in any event, grandly announced that he did not take crowns from commoners.

The difficulty of understanding in what sense this new German liberalism rested on a principle of freedom is that of understanding what it was that its votaries were demanding freedom from. Indeed, for many German liberals it was not a question of freedom from anything. German metaphysics of the same period was working out a concept of freedom that had nothing to do with resisting constraint. Guido de Ruggiero, a sympathetic Italian historian of German liberalism wrote:

The eternal glory of Kant is to have demonstrated that obedience to the moral law is freedom. It was the great merit of [G. W. F.] Hegel to have extracted from the Kantian identification of freedom with mind, the idea of an organic development of freedom, coinciding with the organisation of society in its progressively higher and more spiritual forms. The State, the organ of coercion par excellence, has become the highest expression of liberty. (History of European Liberalism )

The idea that true freedom is to be found in obedience to the morally perfected state gave a theoretical justification (of a highly abstract kind) to the nineteenth-century German liberals' pursuit of liberty in submission to a strong and unified nation-state. But these high-thinking theorists never recovered from Friedrich Wilhelm's snub in 1849. Germany got its unity, but it was the imperialists, not the new liberals, who achieved it, and it was Otto von Bismarck, rather than Immanuel Kant, who gave the unified nation its political ethos. After the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, however, there was some revival of the Lockean type of liberalism in Germany.

American Liberalism

In the United States the word liberal has never enjoyed the prestige it has in the United Kingdom, for in America there has never been, as there has in England, a national liberal party. The short-lived Liberal Republican Party of the 1870s was without a coherent program. Horace Greeley, its presidential candidate, was at once a socialist, spiritualist, vegetarian, and total abstainer; his personality led many Americans of his time to associate the word liberal with a visionary crank, and some still do. F. O. Matthiessen wrote in 1948: "In our nineteenth-century political life we had no such formulated division as that between the Conservatives and Liberals in England. The key word seized upon by our native radical movement of the eighties and nineties, that of the Populists, was not 'liberal' but 'progressive'" (From the Heart of Europe, New York, 1948, p. 90). Again, whereas in Vernon Louis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought the word liberal occurs on almost every page, Parrington's pupil Henry Steele Commager never once uses the words liberal and liberalism in his continuation volume, The American Mind (New Haven, CT, 1950).

Just as in France the word liberal had been used by some writers for almost any kind of left-wing opinion, so in America the word liberal was widely adopted after the Great Depression as a soubriquet for "socialist." In The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling defined liberalism as meaning, among other things, "a belief in planning and international co-operation, especially where Russia is in question." This definition may not have been wholly authorized by common usage, but there can be no doubt that the word liberal has come to be associated in the American public's mind with étatiste and left-wing ideologies rather than with the Lockean notions of laissez-faire and mistrust of organized power.

Indeed, it was one of Parrington's arguments in Main Currents in American Thought that American liberalism, as he called it, had always been concerned with democracy in a way that Locke and his English followers had not. Yet even before the emergence of twentieth-century left-wing liberalism, two rival creeds, both of which could reasonably be called liberal, contended for political supremacy. The first, as Parrington pointed out, was close to the "English philosophy of laissez-faire, based on the assured universality of the acquisitive instinct and postulating a social order answering the needs of the abstract 'economic man' in which the state should function in the interests of trade." The second liberalism was Rousseauesque rather than Lockean. It was "based on the conception of human perfectibility" and looked toward an egalitarian democracy "in which the political state should function as the servant to the common well-being."

The dominant political sentiment of the American tradition derives something from both these kinds of liberalism, for it has combined a Lockean attachment to liberty from the state with a Rousseauesque belief in democracy and equality. Nevertheless, perhaps it is still not quite respectable to be an avowed liberal in America. This may be partly because there has been no traditional support for a liberal party. It is also partly because not only socialists, but also communists and communist sympathizers, have not ceased to assume the title "liberal" rather than a more explicit expression of their political commitment.

A remarkable variety of political structures has been thought by different philosophers to embody liberty, and a correspondingly mixed company has shared the name "liberal." In singling out certain main streams or schools of liberal thought, one has to be mindful of the divergences that exist even among those which can be usefully grouped together. One might broadly divide philosophers of freedom into those who think that to be free is to be able to do what one wants to do and those who think that to be free is to do what one ought to do. By a similar method, one might divide liberals into those who see freedom as something that belongs to the individual, to be defended against the encroachments of the state, and those who see freedom as something which belongs to society and which the state, as the central instrument of social betterment, can be made to enlarge and improve. It remains to be said that some of the greatest names in the history of liberal thought, including John Stuart Mill himself, are strangely poised between these two positions.

See also Althusius, Johannes; Arnold, Matthew; Censorship; Green, Thomas Hill; Hobbes, Thomas; Humboldt, Wilhelm von; Kant, Immanuel; Libertarianism; Liberty; Locke, John; Mill, John Stuart; Montesquieu, Baron de; Rights; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Sovereignty; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


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Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953.

Waldeck-Rousseau, P. M. R. L'état et la liberté. Paris, 1906.

Watson, G., ed. The Unservile State. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957.

Maurice Cranston (1967)


views updated May 23 2018





Liberalism has been conceived of as at once a political philosophy, as an allied political movement, and as a way of thinking about the foundations and practices of government. Liberalism has historically been defined by a great diversity of ideas, largely due to the changing contexts within which and against which liberal thought has taken shape. Despite this diversity, there are a number of basic premises common to all liberal traditions. The most central of these is a valorization of the individual and of individual liberty, and much liberal debate has concerned the conceptions of human nature that undergird these terms. Linked to this, liberal thought has been preoccupied with how individuals should govern and be governed with the least possible intervention or coercion. While liberalism arose simultaneously with the Enlightenment as an often revolutionary response to religious and absolutist forms of government, liberal democracy has, in the aftermath of the Cold War, become the dominant form of government.


While the term liberal was not commonly used until the mid-nineteenth century, much liberal thought traces its origins to early modern writing, and in particular to John Lockes (16321704) writings on natural law in the context of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Against the doctrine of the divine right of kings, Locke ([1690] 1988) argued that individuals are Gods property and as such have a natural right to the means of survivallife, health, liberty, and property. The social contract is not, as it was in Thomas Hobbes (15881679), necessitated by fear, but rather secures the protection of the natural rights that individuals enjoyed in the state of nature. Lockes most lasting contributions to liberal theorizing were his conception of civil society as a society of free men, equal under the rule of law, and the link he drew between liberty and property. Lockes thought and in particular the emphasis he placed on consensual government would become central in the formulation of the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

With the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment and the rise of free market capitalism, liberal thought came to entail a more encompassing framework, including most importantly an economic theory. Against mercantilism, Adam Smith (17231790) argued in The Wealth of Nations ([1776] 2000) that a free market economy, if left to its own devices, would automatically regulate itself through an invisible hand. Smith viewed human nature as inherently propelled by self-interest that is, however, softened by the capacity for sympathy. Through the process of competition, individuals would fulfill their self-interest and, in the process, produce a balanced society. On the European continent, the Enlightenment tradition was defined by a much more rationalist conception of human nature that centered on the individual ability to reason and to direct change. The conceptions of individual reason and limited government in the work of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (17671835) in Germany and Voltaire (16941778) and the Marquis de Condorcet (17431794) in the context of the French Revolution (17891799) had a lasting influence on liberal thought.

In the nineteenth century, English liberal thought developed an increasingly rationalistic turn. Starting with the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and James Mill (17731836), increasing trust is placed in the human capacity for reason and for the rational design of social institutions. The principle of utility, which in Adam Smith was reduced to individual calculations unknowable to the sovereign, now becomes the basis of governing society as a whole. Human action, argue the utilitarians, needs to be judged according to whether it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. John Stuart Mill (18061873), while placing himself within the utilitarian tradition, argued that representative democracy was the best system to ensure that everyone had the freedom to pursue his own conception of happiness. In his most seminal contribution to liberal thought, On Liberty ([1859] 1989), Mill sought to fuse his fathers utilitarianism with a strong defense of individuality and personal autonomy. His argument hinged on the idea of character and self-development based on a notion of human nature as perfectible. By extension, however, Mills argument allowed for gradations of democracy based on the principles of civilization and progress that, especially in the colonies, entailed the justification of despotism (Mehta 1999).

In the early twentieth century, in the context of the crisis of the free market regime and the rise of socialism, a more state-centered strand of liberalism developed in Britain that sought to balance individual freedoms with equality in the form of welfare provisions. Elaborated in the work of sociologist Leonard Hobhouse (18641929) and later supported by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes (18831946), the new liberalism was central to the development of the welfare state. In the aftermath of World War II (19391945) and in the context of the Cold War, a liberal conception and critique of totalitarianism arose in the work of Karl Popper (19021994) and in Isaiah Berlins (19091997) conception and valuation of negative liberty (freedom from) over positive liberty (freedom to). For much of the century, however, welfare-state liberalism remained hegemonic in liberal thought and politics.

However, in the context of the crisis of the 1970s and rising critiques of the welfare state, liberal debate on the role of the state was reinvigorated. Arguing against the aggregating postulates of utilitarianism, John Rawlss (19212002) A Theory of Justice (1971) proposes a neo-Kantian, rights-based conception of justice as fairness. Against a teleological conception of the good, this contractarian approach is premised on a heuristic device Rawls terms the original position in which individuals are imagined to be behind a veil of ignorance about their potential standing and attachments within society. From this position of distance and ignorance, individuals will rationally decide on a generalizable principle of justice. Importantly, this conception enables Rawls to move away from making any substantive claims about the public good or liberal society, to instead propose a procedural-ist conception of justice based on rights rather than any particular version of the good. Partly as a response to his critics, Rawls (1993) later proposed the concept of political liberalism. Here, the question of pluralism is addressed by reducing the conception of justice to the idea of public reason defined by an overlapping consensus. According to Rawls, this revised conception is necessitated in order to guarantee the stability of society in the context of diverging conceptions of the good.

In a 1974 critique of A Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick (19382002) proposes a minimal state, responsible primarily for the protection of private property. Friedrich von Hayek (18991992), who had throughout the period of welfare-state liberalism argued against state intervention into the economy, became one of the most influential proponents of a return to classical liberalism. Drawing on the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, Hayek proposed that society and in particular the economic sphere were unknowable to policymakers and would be governed by a spontaneous order as long as state intervention would be reduced to sustaining a peaceful order. Hayeks theorization of the limits of state reason became one of the most influential tracts in the rise to hegemony of neoliberalism in the last decades of the twentieth century.


Critiques of liberalism have usually converged on liberalisms disembodied conception of the individual. Edmund Burkes (17291797) writing on the French Revolution ([1790] 2001) lay the groundwork for the conservative critique of liberalism. Burke posited the organic nature of traditions evolved over time against what he perceived to be the ephemeral and dangerous rationalism of the Enlightenment. More recently and in explicit response to John Rawls, what has come to be known as the communitarian critique faults liberalism on both an ontological and a normative basis. The individual, communitarians like Michael Sandel (1984) argue, is not presocial; rather, the individual only emerges through and within social and communal relations. Secondly, a society of atomized individuals is undesirable, since it removes the individual from the relations through which life becomes intelligible (MacIntyre 1981) and morally meaningful (Taylor 1979).

In his critique of liberal conceptions of freedom, Karl Marx (18181883) argued that the political emancipation of the individual is enabled by removing all difference from the political to the private realm. The liberal conception of autonomy is thus fictitious in that an individuals socioeconomic and religious particularities continue to exist outside liberalisms purview. Later, and here more explicitly linking liberalism to the rise of capitalism, Marx showed the ambiguities of liberal emancipation, famously suggesting that capitalism freed workers to sell their laborpower in the market place and simultaneously freed them from the means of production.

Similarly concerned with the constitution of the individual, Michel Foucault (19261984) viewed liberalism as a political rationality, as a practical way of thinking about the modalities and targets of government. Liberalism entails both the critique of previous ways of governing and the rise of new modalities of power that seek to produce a citizenry capable of self-government. Processes of responsibilization, disciplining, and normalization are thus not antithetical to liberalism, but rather the condition for liberal forms of rule. Liberal freedom is here not conceived of as the gradual removal of state intervention, but as entailing a new regime of power and a new approach to how one should govern oneself and others.

SEE ALSO Cold War; Colonialism; Foucault, Michel; French Revolution; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Hobbes, Thomas; Identity; Locke, John; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Neoliberalism; Pluralism; Rawls, John


Berlin, Isaiah. 1969. Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). In Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burke, Edmund. [1790] 2001. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. J. C. D. Clark. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2004. Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au collège de France, 19781979 [The birth of biopolitics]. Eds. François Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, and Michel Senellart. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1978. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobhouse, Leonard T. 1911. Liberalism. New York: Holt.

Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government. 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, Alisdair. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Marx, Karl. 1977. On the Jewish Question (1844). In Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 3957. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mehta, Uday Sing. 1999. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1989. On Liberty (1859). In J. S. Mill: On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini, 1116. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sandel, Michael. 1984. The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self. In Political Theory 12 (1): 8196.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 2000. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library.

Taylor, Charles. 1979. Atomism. In Powers, Possessions, and Freedom: Essays in Honour of C. B. Macpherson, ed. Alkis Kontos, 3961. Toronto, ON: Toronto University Press.

Antina von Schnitzler


views updated May 29 2018


Liberalism was at first a European and later a worldwide intellectual and political movement whose aim was to promote greater freedom and liberty for the individual. It had its roots in the struggle for power between church and state during the Middle Ages. Liberals tended to see both institutions as inimical to the interests of the individual and therefore wanted to limit their power. The political agenda of nineteenth-century liberalism was to liquidate the remaining power of the medieval church, already broken in northern Europe as a result of the Protestant Reformation, and to promote individual economic and political power, under the doctrine of laissez-faire, against the political power of the state. Liberals hoped that the economic growth from such reforms would expand the size of the middle class, increase the number of citizens admitted to political power, and thereby bolster the ranks of liberalism.

Latin American liberalism was part of this wider movement. Since the Iberian world had been untouched by the Protestant Reformation, its liberals faced a far more powerful church antagonist than the liberals of northern Europe, a reality that explains the primacy of anticlericalism in the liberal movement in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. Moreover, Europe's experience with economic development, civil war, and revolution was such that the state's power to impose corporate and economic restraints on the individual was much weaker there by the nineteenth century than in the Iberian/Latin American world.

The battle against the power of the church was pan-European and began in the Enlightenment, whose secular and optimistic vision of the future greatly molded liberal thinking. In Iberia, the opening round was the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese and Spanish empires in 1759 and 1767, respectively. Their properties were confiscated, for a brief time administered by the state, and eventually auctioned off. The second round took place during the Napoleonic Wars, when the state's economic problems produced similar results. In 1798 the Spanish Bourbons ordered the forced sale of all church property in Spain that sustained chantries and pious foundations. In 1804 the measure was extended to Spanish America. Already in the air, therefore, were some of the components that would mark future liberal thinking.

The seeds of other liberal issues of the Iberian world—greater economic and political freedom—also go back to the Bourbon Reforms of the eighteenth century. While the goal of many was greater absolutism, the particulars of the agenda could just as easily be pushed forward in the name of individual freedom. Free trade, for example, advanced on various fronts by fits and starts, so that by the end of the century mercantilism was in decline. On the political front, the introduction of the Intendancy System and local militias gave the central government a real presence at the provincial level, but it also created the regional organizational structures that enabled regions to resist central authority and set the stage for the federalist-centralist struggles of the nineteenth century.

Much of liberal ideology was crystallized in the Spanish Constitution of 1812. The constitutional crisis brought on by the 1808 French invasion of Spain prompted an immediate "modernization" of the political system. The constitution severely limited monarchical government, ended the Inquisition, restricted the military and ecclesiastical fueros, created provincial deputations and militias as a counterweight to centralized authority, and provided for universal manhood suffrage. The constitution also went into effect in Mexico and Central America, where elections were soon held. The constitution was annulled in 1814 by Ferdinand VII, but was forced on him again in 1820. Mexican and Central American leaders broke definitively with Spain in 1820 in order to avoid a return of its version of liberalism. The 1812 Constitution socialized a generation of Mexican and Central American liberals and accounts for some of the virulence of the federalist-centralist struggles there.

Liberals identified with federalism and the separation of powers because they provided a check on the absolute power of the centralized state and tended to enhance the autonomy and freedom of the individual. The problem of what the proper balance between central and provincial authority should be occupied liberals from early on. They were not always consistent in their answer. They frequently acted illiberally and imposed their own views on others. Liberals were often selective in what principles they chose to support; their decisions usually depended on the political, economic, and social context of their own region and what was in their personal interest and/or what was politically possible. Pragmatic considerations such as survival, self-defense, access to power, and domination often won out over ideological consistency in the liberal agenda, especially in the area of the federalist-centralist debate. This debate was especially intense in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina.

Regarding the economic order, liberals wanted to liquidate much of the colonial legacy of state control, state taxation, and church, corporate, and state interference in economic matters. In general, liberals supported the movement toward free trade and a lowering of the tariff. They believed that these changes would produce more trade and commerce, which in turn would prompt the economic growth that would transform the whole economy. An end to state subsidies and monopoly rents like tobacco and aguardiente were logical parts of the liberal program. But where falling government revenues endangered the ability of the central government to pay its soldiers and bureaucrats, or where the reaction from sugar, tobacco, and cotton growers or artisan producers was too great, liberals usually moderated their principles.

A basic premise of liberalism was the right of the individual to be treated equally before the law. Thus it was logical that Indian tribute and communal lands, special categories like ecclesiastical and military fueros, entailed estates, and slavery and other forced labor institutions would come under attack. Freedom of the press and many civil liberties taken for granted elsewhere were not always espoused by, let alone supported by, Latin American liberals. Liberals in multiracial and unequal societies frequently compromised and even betrayed their principles. Such was the case in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where liberals excluded Indians from their push to increase individual liberties, and in Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba, where liberals closed their eyes to the plight of the enslaved.

Since the church had been such a close partner of the state in the colonial period, it had held onto functions and powers that the churches of post-Reformation Europe and North America had long since relinquished. The church's role as the recorder of vital statistics, such as births, marriages, and deaths, was a frequent battleground between the Latin American church and its liberal opponents. Religious toleration and church control of education were other areas of conflict. State control of church appointments and tithes, the colonial patronato, was claimed by the liberals, and used to mold and "modernize" the church hierarchy. What to do with the religious orders was a thorny problem. For many liberals, they were a vestige of the Middle Ages. Their suppression had several advantages from the liberal point of view. A sell-off of their wealth would raise money for the state, put property back into circulation that had been in "dead" hands, and eliminate some of the financial support for, and hence the attractiveness of joining, the clerical estate. The church-state conflict was especially bitter in Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.

The liberal advance in Latin America was anything but uniform. Country-by-country differences are a testimony to Latin America's fabled diversity. The bewildering possibilities for just one country are captured in Gabriel García Márquez's portrayal of the liberal struggle in Colombia in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. But each region is a case study that frequently disproves the general rule. In Central America, liberals from the outlying provinces had won a seemingly definitive victory in their struggle with conservative centralists in Guatemala City in the late 1820s, and thought they would have the power to force Guatemala to share its income and resources with the rest of Central America. Beginning in 1830, the liberal federation president, Francisco Morazán of Honduras, pursued a centralist policy and carried out the most radical liberal program in Latin America up to that time, with the abolition of tribute, the ecclesiastical fuero, regular orders, and compulsory tithes. These measures, as well as a head-tax, making divorce legal, and allowing civil marriage, led to an inevitable reaction.

In Guatemala it coalesced around the proclerical Caudillo Rafael Carrera, who led the conservatives to victory over Morazán in 1840. Guatemalan conservatives, fearing a resurgence of liberal power throughout the isthmus, flip-flopped and adopted a federalist stance. Liberal aid in Nicaragua to the interventionist effort of the American filibuster William Walker confirmed conservative fears and discredited liberals throughout Central America. Walker's intervention plus Carrera's reign until 1865 delayed a return to liberal rule in Central America. When Liberals did recover power in Guatemala under Justo Rufino Barrios in 1871, their disestablishment of the church was even more total than that in Mexico later. With the social control provided by the church gone, liberals ruled Guatemala's Indians in a repressive and exploitative fashion.

In Mexico the colonial church, establishment, and legacy, especially in Mexico City, were much stronger. Liberals were not immediately victorious as in Central America, and had to proceed in a more piecemeal fashion. They had to ensure that the institutional framework protected their liberal base in the provinces, especially against special interest groups in Mexico City like the army. The liberal agenda in the 1820s and 1830s was pushed forward on the federal structure outlined in the 1824 constitution by regional politicians like Valentín Gómez Farías of Zacatecas, José María Luis Mora of Guanajuato, and Lorenzo de Zavala of Yucatán. The individual states had considerable powers, including their own state legislatures, state militias, and state-elected governors.

Liberals finally achieved national power when Antonio López de Santa Anna overthrew the centralist government of Anastasio Bustamante in 1832 and installed Gómez Farías as acting president in 1833. Liberal laws closed down the clerically run national university, secularized Franciscan missions, disentailed church property, and ended compulsory tithes. But other liberal measures, such as ending tariff protection, abolishing the tobacco monopoly, decreasing the size of the army, and ending the military fuero, threatened too many vested interests. Santa Anna sided with the centralists in 1834 and defeated a coalition of state militias headed by Zacatecas. But Texas escaped and became an independent republic in 1836 with Zavala as its vice president. The debacle continued and soured many liberals on federalism.

A divided house was obviously a conquered one, and the loss of much of northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) confirmed the suspicion that federalism put liberals at a competitive disadvantage both nationally and internationally. When liberals drew up the Constitution of 1857, they made sure it was much more centralist than the Constitution of 1824. It also enshrined the Ley Juárez and Ley Lerdo that abolished the ecclesiastical and military fueros and provided for the sale of corporately owned church and Indian real estate. The church's belligerent reaction and support for the conservatives in the War of the Reform (1858–1861) and French intervention (1862–1867) made the liberals determined to establish the church completely. While the disestablishment was reconfirmed in the Constitution of 1917, the church continued to endure in Mexico.

In Argentina liberals faced a weaker colonial establishment, traded directly with Europe, and resided in the capital of Buenos Aires rather than in the provinces (as in Mexico). Under the leadership of Bernardino Rivadavia and other Porteño leaders, they imposed a Unitario or centralist order, first on the province of Buenos Aires in 1820 and then on the rest of the country with their rigorously centralist constitution of 1826. The liberals' program of modernization was truly impressive. They took the fuero from the army and church, reduced the size of the former, and took over assets and property, and many of the educational and welfare functions, of the latter. In their economic program liberals pushed infrastructure development, greater foreign trade, increased immigration, and new investment. But religious freedom, tax modernization, and the war with Brazil over Uruguay were too radical for the interior provinces, and the liberal experiment ended in 1827 in civil war, Rivadavia's departure, and Juan Manuel de Rosas's rise to power. With the defeat of Rosas in 1852, the Unitario liberals regained power in Buenos Aires, and within ten years they had forced themselves on the rest of Argentina. While the Constitution of 1853 was federalist and the capital was eventually federalized, the constitutional right of the president to intervene in the provinces, and the income and growth of Buenos Aires, ensured a centralization in favor of porteño liberals that would have gladdened the hearts of the Unitarios.

In Brazil the chief force for liberalism was the monarch Dom Pedro I, more liberal than his subjects. Favoring a constitutional monarchy, religious toleration, civil liberties, and an end to slavery, he pushed the Constitution of 1824 on his reluctant subjects. But it was not long before the parliamentary system he created evolved to the point where the majority resisted his liberalism and centralization. As a result he abdicated in 1831 in favor of his five-year-old son, Dom Pedro II. By 1842 a system had developed by which the emperor would dissolve parliament, and the elections would be fixed to favor the opposition party; conservative or liberal made no difference. This sham continued until the monarchy was overthrown in 1889.

In Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, independence colleagues Francisco de Paula Santander, José Antonio Páez, Juan José Flores, and Vicente Rocafuerte provided strong leadership and carried out some liberal reforms without them being recognized as such, and a formal liberal-conservative division was postponed until the 1840s. When Colombia's liberal reform came in earnest in the 1850s and 1860s, it surpassed Mexico's in its laissez-faire and individual and states' rights. With the backing of the relentless Tomás Cipriano Mosquera, it imitated the Mexican example in suppressing religious orders and seizing all church property.

In Chile, too, federalism produced disorder and chaos in the 1820s. While the problems with ultrafederalism were not admitted by liberals until the second half of the nineteenth century, ultrafederalism was out of step with the need for a state to be strong enough to face the world, maintain order, and get infrastructure projects like transportation and port systems developed so commerce and trade could evolve effectively. This was Chile's response under the guidance of Diego Portales and the Constitution of 1833, and the nation's unparalleled success by the end of the nineteenth century was an important lesson for the rest of Latin America. In Colombia, where a shortage of national revenues led to a shedding of national government functions and a turn to extreme federalism from 1863 to 1885, the results were such that the liberal Rafael Núñez Moledo drew the same conclusions Portales had, and orchestrated a rapprochement with the conservatives and the church; together they produced the highly centralized Constitution of 1886.

Toward the end of the century, reaction had set in among other liberals as well. In Mexico under Porfirio Díaz, in Venezuela under Antonio Guzmán Blanco, and in Central America under other liberal dictators, the "order and progress" doctrines of the Positivists brought more authoritarian and centralized rule. Although liberal in economic and religious matters, these dictators and their supporters sacrificed other liberal principles, such as an independent judiciary, a free press, and political democracy, for the economic progress order was supposed to bring. On the other hand, in Chile liberals chipped away at presidential power and moved toward parliamentarism, while Brazil moved toward decentralization. And in Argentina, liberal reform brought the middle class to power for the first time in 1916, when the radicals won as a result of the 1912 Sáenz Peña election law.

As the twentieth century opened, the worldwide economic development brought by the industrial revolution had created powerful new forces like corporate businesses that threatened the individual. As a consequence, the political agenda of liberalism changed and increasingly had a social program that looked once again, as it had in its struggle against the church, to the state to protect the individual from the awesome economic power of private capitalism. This change in liberalism was evident in the rule of José Batlle y Ordóñez in Uruguay, Hipólito Irigoyen in Argentina, Arturo Alessandri Palma in Chile, and Alfonso López Pumarejo in Colombia.

In many places the demands of the middle classes and the masses were not met by liberalism, and the old order was swept away, as was the case in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. At the same time, economic difficulties and the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s saw the rise of mass-based authoritarian political movements. Fascism and communism spread throughout Latin America while the APRa (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana) appeared in Peru, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional) in Mexico, and the Peronist Party in Argentina. Many saw these groups as national and international threats; where liberals held power, they invoked the countervailing power of the state for protection. For some this worldwide struggle culminated in World War II. With the victory of the Allies, the global threat of fascism was virtually eliminated, but the postwar settlement left the world divided between East and West. As the twentieth century came to a close, the perceived threat from international communism was much reduced by the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union, and many mass-based formerly authoritarian political movements like APRA, PRI, and Peronism tried to gain respectability by transforming themselves into something akin to liberal parties.

Liberals were now more openly divided over the role of the state. Those who focused on economic concerns like the threat of inflation, budgetary deficits, trade problems, and the inability of the state to solve a wide array of social ills were known as "Neoliberals." They called for a reduced role for the state, a sell-off of state-run enterprises, and a return to the laissez-faire principles of nineteenth-century liberalism. Others looked at the same economic problems, the rise of the third world, nuclear proliferation, and environmental pollution as the main causes of an unstable world order and as the chief threats to individual liberties, and they argued for a continued strong role for the state. Whatever the case, all liberalism—whether old or new, right or left—was about restraining power for the benefit of the individual.

See alsoBolivia, Constitutions: Overview; Bourbon Reforms; Brazil, Constitutions; Chile, Constitutions; Cuba, Constitutions; Ecuador, Constitutions; Guatemala, Constitutions; Peru, Constitutions; Spain, Constitution of 1812.


For a clearly written and cogently argued survey of liberalism in general, see Harry K. Girvetz, From Wealth to Welfare: The Evolution of Liberalism, rev. ed. (1966). On Latin America, the best survey by far is David Bushnell and Neill Macaulay, The Emergence of Latin America in the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed. (1994). For church-state relations, see John L. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America: A History of Politico-Ecclesiastical Relations, rev. ed. (1966), which, though overly legalistic, is still serviceable. Individual country surveys in which the role of liberalism is particularly well explained include David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (1993); Ralph L. Woodward, Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided, 2d ed. (1985), and Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971). For the role of the Constitution of 1812, see Nettie Lee Benson, The Provincial Deputation in Mexico: Harbinger of Provincial Autonomy, Independence, and Federalism (1992) and Nettie Lee Benson, ed., Mexico and the Spanish Cortes, 1810–1822 (1966). An excellent in-depth political history of liberalism and federalism in early independent Chile is Simon Collier, Ideas and Politics of Chilean Independence, 1808–1833 (1967). The study of liberalism as intellectual history in a single country has no equal to Charles A. Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821–1853 (1968) and The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico (1989). The crucial Mexican Reform period is superbly handled by Richard N. Sinkin, The Mexican Reform, 1855–1876: A Study in Liberal Nation-Building (1979). The impact of the expropriation of church wealth is analyzed in Jan Bazant, Alienation of Church Wealth in Mexico: Social and Economic Aspects of the Liberal Revolution, 1856–1875 (1971). Although liberalism in the twentieth century has not been adequately studied, the economic issues are outlined in Joseph L. Love and Nils Jacobsen, eds., Guiding the Invisible Hand: Economic Liberalism and the State in Latin American History (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Aguilar Rivera, José Antonio. The Divine Charter: Constitutionalism and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

González Prada, Manuel. "Nuestros Liberales." in Horas de lucha with Páginas libres. Cáracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1976: 269-276.

Gootenberg, Paul. Imagining Development: Economic Ideas in Peru's "Fictitious Prosperity" of Guano, 1840–1880. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Paim, Antônio. História do liberalismo brasileiro. São Paulo, Brasil: Editora Mandarim, 1998.

Rodríguez O., Jaime E. El manto liberal: Los poderes de emergencia en México, 1821–1876. Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001.

Tosto, Milton. The Meaning of Liberalism in Brazil. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005.

                                 Maurice P. Brungardt


views updated May 23 2018



A European living in 1930, or even in 1970, would certainly have been astounded to learn that liberalism had outlived the twentieth century and even begun to dominate Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first. To understand this, one must remember that Europeans experienced the period between the outbreak of World War Iin 1914 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a continual and repeated crisis of liberalism.

The history of liberalism between 1914 and the early twenty-first century is thus a rather curious one, for it is the history of a death followed by a resurrection. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the definition of liberalism varies depending on which of its several aspects is under consideration. Even putting matters at their simplest, at least five dimensions must be taken into account: judicial liberalism, according to which rights protect all the freedoms required for the unfettered development of the individual; constitutional liberalism, or political arrangements designed to prevent or limit the concentration, concealment, or abuse of power; political liberalism, in which major political parties seek to promote their doctrine among the masses; economic liberalism, which assigns priority to free enterprise; and finally, too often overlooked, the moral and cultural liberalism that preaches tolerance for diverse opinions and behavior. These different facets together form the variegated picture offered by liberalism after 1914.


One thing, though, can hardly be contested: liberalism as it came into being in the nineteenth century was the first victim of World War I. So great was the war's impact that all dimensions of liberalism may be said to have been thrown into question, including the moral one, whose retreat was clearly reflected by men's increased power over women, by the new tension between the generations, and by an increased repression of abortion in the context of policies designed to boost the birthrate.

The severest blow to liberalism was of an intellectual and philosophical order. Many thoughtful Europeans in the 1920s felt that their civilization was no longer liberal in its essence. The notion of moral progress had been shattered by the military exactions deliberately visited upon civilian populations (bombing, imprisonment, expulsions). Any notion of a law-governed community of nations (droit des gens) or of a peace founded on international law had been reduced to a mockery by the war aims of the various belligerents (including the annexation of foreign territories, the economic subjugation of conquered peoples, and the forced removal of populations). Neither the draconian economic measures decreed by the Treaty of Versailles (and denounced by John Maynard Keynes), nor the League of Nations, whose actions were for the most part ineffective, could restore the idea of a European civilization.

The mass slaughter of World War I was perceived as the destruction of the very principles in whose defense that war had been waged. The institution of press censorship, the opening of the mail, and restrictions on the freedom to buy and sell, and on travel and assembly, meant that all the liberties that had hitherto defined the individual's everyday relationship to a liberal order had been curtailed or suspended; what was more, they had been abridged by states, parties, or politicians who continued to call themselves liberal. It would be fair to say, however, albeit something of a generalization, that in the wake of the war European culture, as expressed through the arts, literature, and philosophy, became antiliberal, rejecting reason and individualism and embracing violence.

It was in the economic sphere that the crisis of liberalism was most acutely felt. The great crash of 1929 is often looked upon as the catalyst of the crisis of liberal capitalism, but so far as Europe was concerned, and in terms of public perceptions, economic liberalism had already been deeply wounded by the great financial and monetary upheavals of the 1920s. For the European middle class, liberalism as it existed prior to 1914 was founded not on credit and consumption but rather on the traditional forms of rent, thrift, and inheritance. The inflation, rising prices, and currency devaluation especially rampant in countries such as Germany ruined (in both senses of the term) the bourgeois forms of wealth, revenue from which depended on stable prices and the convertibility of national currencies into gold.

For the population at large, it was faith in the "laws" of the economy that was exploded by the developments of the 1920s and 1930s. How could one continue to believe in a liberal economy governed by an invisible hand, dispensing worldwide justice and prosperity, when one's own experience included multiple currency devaluations, mass unemployment (10 to 12 percent of the active population in Great Britain in the 1920s), rife stock-market speculation, and the manifest inability of liberal governments to introduce adequate policies in response? Economic liberalism as a set of social beliefs, including the possibility of steady self-enrichment, the prospect of passing on a significant inheritance, and the presumption that it was reasonable to plan for the future, was thus critically compromised as the century proceeded. Only a new liberalism founded on consumption, credit, immediate remuneration in the form of salaries, and massive social mobility—a kind of liberalism that most continental European countries would not experience until the 1960s—would restore a collective sense of confidence in liberal capitalism.

In Great Britain, the "fall" of the Liberal Party brought much grist to the mill for those who foretold the utter demise of liberalism. The party, which had still dominated British political life at the beginning of the war, emerged from the conflict deeply divided. The Liberals were at logger-heads on almost every major issue: the acceptability of economic intervention by the state; the partition of Ireland; the type of social reforms called for; the return to the gold standard (abandoned in 1931); free trade (abandoned in 1932); and the relationship between the nation and its colonial empire. In point of fact, the Liberal Party, divided as it was between David Lloyd George and Herbert Henry Asquith, was now the third political force in the country, behind the Conservative and Labour Parties; and, despite a certain revival in the 1970s, it remained in that position for the rest of the century. Liberals experienced a comparable collapse in numerous other European countries, and often for the same reasons (Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark). Long in the majority, if not the parliamentary leadership, before 1914, liberal parties were relegated to the position of a structural minority everywhere in postwar Europe.

In France, the parties inspired by liberalism had always been split between moderate (Democratic Alliance Party) and radical republicans (Radical Party), but all tendencies had heretofore shared the same cultural attachment to economic liberalism and the same commitment to predominantly parliamentary institutions. In the course of the 1920s and 1930s, however, this common French liberal culture suffered a deep crisis: liberal politicians went so far as to criticize or reject the basic assumptions of liberalism, whether economic, as with the defense of a planned economy by the younger generation of radicals, or political, as with the call for a "strong" government overriding the parliamentary principle. By the mid-1930s, challenged on the one side by extreme right-wing leagues and on the other by powerful communist and socialist parties, French liberal republicanism had lost most of an influence that it was destined never to regain.

The Weimar Republic (1919–1933) is probably the most studied case of a general crisis of liberalism, one that combined not only a crisis of the liberal parties, a crisis in liberal institutions, and a crisis of liberal doctrine, but also arguably a crisis in liberal political mores, as moderation, the rule of law, and a public discourse governed by rational argument were challenged by rising violence, intimidation, sloganeering, and street propaganda. Both the right liberals of the Deutsche Volkspartei and the left liberals of the Deutsche Demokratische Partei were obliterated by the dual challenge of the nationalist and the Marxist parties. Though the liberals (specifically Hugo Preuss) had inspired the constitutional compromise of 1919, they drew no benefit from it; instead they were accused of treason for having accepted the Treaty of Versailles, of economic failure on account of inflation and of the currency crisis, and of political impotence as demonstrated by the instability of their ministerial cabinets. Liberalism had become the straw man of all political diatribes, be they driven by nationalist resentment or by the desire for radical social change. Cultural and artistic attitudes, themselves shot through by violence and radicalism, also hastened the crisis of liberal values. It is well worth recalling that Adolf Hitler's coming to power in January 1933 took place against the tripartite backdrop of the liberal parties' defeats, the crisis of liberal constitutionalism (as decrees and presidential ordinances replaced genuine parliamentary legislation), and the failure of intellectual and moral liberalism betokened by the triumph of violence and maximalism over rationality.

In not a few European countries that adopted neo-authoritarian regimes it was the weakness of liberalism—notably of liberal institutions, of judicial and constitutional liberalism—rather than the strength of authoritarian or fascist ideology that supplied the lever. Even the liberal democrats acknowledged this: liberalism was its own worst enemy. The image it presented in the face of a dysfunctional economy (whose crisis was only aggravated by the liberal policy of budgetary deflation), in the face of authoritarian governments, or in the face of international diplomatic crises, was one of impotence.


The disfavor into which liberalism had fallen explained the ambiguous nature of the reconstruction of the so-called liberal democracies after 1945. Nazism and fascism were vanquished; the antiliberal Far Right was discredited; yet the disappearance of these rivals in no way heralded liberalism's return to grace. True, the shock caused by the revelation of Nazi crimes gave a significant fillip to liberalism as the guarantor of the basic rights of human beings. The idea that these rights must be protected by constitutions and declarations of first principles rather than abandoned to the vicissitudes of political majorities was decisively reaffirmed. Both international law (witness the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948) and national constitutional law (for example, the Federal Constitutional Tribunal created in 1951 for West Germany or the French Constitutional Council of 1958) strove, in accordance with the intellectual legacy of the eminent jurist Hans Kelsen (1881–1973), to perpetuate the rule of law (in the European sense of an État de droit or Rechtsstaat). But, broadly speaking, in the Europe of 1945, liberalism had by no means retrieved its former status as the most popular political philosophy—and certainly not in the economic and social realms.

It is sometimes suggested that the economic and social system instituted in western Europe after 1945 had liberal roots. William Beveridge is usually cited in this connection for his contribution to the British welfare state, with its major public services providing protections against the ravages of illness, unemployment, old age, and poverty; and John Maynard Keynes is credited for his economic prescriptions justifying social spending and voluntary budgetary deficits. The contribution of liberalism here should not be overestimated, however. During these early postwar years, with their emphasis on the nationalization of big business and often on economic planning, liberals, be they economists, politicians, or high civil servants, were largely relegated to the background. In fact the advent of the welfare state served only to divide European liberals once again: on the one hand were those (such as Friedrich Hayek) who were hostile to the very idea of economic and social intervention by the state, and on the other hand those who accepted a compromise with the social democrats in the shape of a "social market" economy. Where political parties calling themselves liberal still existed, they tended (except in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, where they were more solid) to be small intermediate parties capable at most of adding their weight to coalitions of one kind or another, as in the cases of the German Free Democratic Party, the Italian Liberal Party, the French Centre National des Indépendants, or the Belgian Liberal Reform Party. These small liberal parties no longer represented anybody except particular minority sectors—liberal professions, artisans, small businessmen, or farmers—who had been forgotten or ignored by newly established social democratic regimes.

Liberalism did not disappear altogether between the 1940s and the 1970s, but this was due solely to its survival in an intellectual sense and to a continued niche existence within the other great political traditions. Thus liberal features were easier to recognize in the Christian social democratic movements of Alcide De Gasperi in Italy or Ludwig Erhard in Germany, with their attachment to the principles of competition and a stable currency, or even among some social democrats, than in liberal parties prone at times to drift into the politics of protest or populism, confining themselves to a critique of state bureaucracy and the social burdens imposed by fiscal inequities. Liberal attitudes on rational planning in a free market economy persisted too among high technocrats and functionaries, such as Jacques Rueff or Jean Monnet in France, or in the pressure groups of industrialists. It was as though liberalism had abandoned the political realm to other tendencies and no longer needed to engage in politics in the electoral sense.


Then came the last great surprise of the twentieth century: the almost triumphal "return" of liberalism. The economic crisis of the 1970s had the opposite effect to the antiliberal reaction of the 1930s. No longer a scapegoat, liberalism became a kind of miracle remedy.

In Great Britain, the political success of Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was based on a return to the social ethic of economic liberalism. Her policies, embracing anti-inflationary measures, privatization, reduced taxation, and the economic disengagement of the state, were underpinned not only by new economic theories (monetarism and the emphasis on supply rather than demand) but above all by an appeal to the values of hard work and individual merit as opposed to what she called a "culture of dependence" produced by the welfare-state era. Thatcherist neoliberalism has been adopted, though often in considerably modified form, as the political credo of many European governments since the 1980s, among them the administrations of Jacques Chirac, Édouard Balladur, and Alain Juppé in France, Helmut Kohl in Germany, José Maria Aznar in Spain, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. The only social features of the welfare state still defended everywhere are health services and unemployment protection—often in a reconceived version, as in Holland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

There was more to liberalism's rebirth, however, than the fact that it effectively addressed economic crisis. The critique of European communism and its subsequent collapse brought a new intellectual and political generation into the liberal fold. Beginning in the 1970s, broad criticism of communist regimes put the defense of basic freedoms back on the order of the day, including freedom of information, freedom of expression, and freedom to practice one's religion. Once the communist regimes were gone, an economic liberalism holding out the prospect of rapid access to the consumer society, of free enterprise, and of geographical and social mobility, exercised a pronounced power of seduction over a portion of public opinion in formerly communist countries, most of all among young people.

The construction of the European Union (EU) also had an impact on the liberal renaissance. From the outset (the Treaty of Rome of 1957), liberal principles underlay a project driven by the wish to transcend international conflicts through peaceful cooperation among states. When the institutional process of European integration resumed with the Single European Act in 1986, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the formal completion of the single market in 1993, and the introduction of the single currency in 2002, these developments paralleled the successes of neoliberal policies within member nations. And indeed liberal conceptions of free trade, deregulation, and the disengagement of the state from economic management also informed (and still inform) the main decisions taken at the European level. The progression of EU membership from fifteen to twenty-five states, including the incorporation of former communist countries, has even further strengthened the influence of economic, judicial, and philosophical liberalism within pan-European institutions.

It is therefore tempting to conclude that liberalism has experienced a perfect resuscitation, as though the beneficiary of an egregious instance of the cunning of history after the successive disappearances of the great mass ideologies of the twentieth century—nationalism, fascism, Nazism, communism, and socialism. There can be no doubt that liberalism in its economic and judicial dimensions was far more solid in the first years of the twenty-first century than it was in either 1930 or 1950. Yet there is something ambiguous about this "victory" of liberalism.


In the first place, there has been no corresponding renaissance of the great liberal political parties of an earlier day, founded exclusively on the liberal credo. Strong in some senses but weak in others, liberalism is widely dispersed—discernible as easily in the British Conservative Party as among continental Social Democrats; it has no single incarnation. Precisely because of this broad, almost hegemonic presence, European liberalism is still the butt of sharp criticism from vast mass political movements. These may be of the Far Right, claiming that liberalism threatens the integrity of the nation, or of the Far Left, arguing that in its globalizing phase liberalism destroys social bonds.

Second, compared with nineteenth-century liberalism, neoliberalism seems seriously lopsided, being far more legal and economic in nature than political and constitutional. From the constitutional standpoint, in fact, liberalism is visibly in retreat: neoliberal experiments, notably in Great Britain and Italy, have been characterized by a personalized and media-driven exercise of power, a centralization of decision-making, and a marked decline in parliamentary process.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the aspect of liberalism that has perhaps made the most headway since the 1960s is the cultural and social emancipation implied by the progress of feminism, the extension of gay rights, and the transformation of the family and of mores. This kind of liberalism has nourished left-wing political culture but not that of the neoliberal Right. Left liberals are inclined to defend minority and women's rights and to embrace multiculturalism while frequently remaining opposed to economic liberalism, whereas neoliberals often ally themselves with such neoconservative demands as a return to the traditional family and the defense of moral and even religious values. Partisans of cultural liberalism are thus prone to find themselves in direct opposition to partisans of economic liberalism, so that the idea of a liberal movement that is fundamentally split is as pertinent in the early twenty-first century as it ever was.

See alsoAsquith, Herbert Henry; Beveridge, William; Keynes, J. M.; Lloyd George, David; Monnet, Jean .


Aron, Raymond. An Essay on Liberty. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York, 1970. Originally published, 1965.

Burdeau, Georges. Le libéralisme. Paris, 1979.

Freeden, Michael. Liberalism Divided: A Study in British Political Thought, 1914–1939. Oxford, U.K., 1986.

Lippmann, Walter. An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society. Boston, 1937. Reprint, as The Good Society, with an introduction by Gary Dean Best, New Brunswick, N.J., 2005.

Nicolas Roussellier


views updated Jun 11 2018


In today's America the term "liberalism" is circulated mainly by those who pronounce it with scorn—by the political right and by academic theorists who have little else in common with the right. Yet the American nation was conceived in liberalism. The declaration of independence proclaimed the liberal ideals of individual liberty, legal equality, and the rule of law. It also embraced the liberal doctrine that located the legitimacy of governmental power not in divine right but in the consent of the governed.

The Constitution, too, was mainly seen by its Framers through liberal lenses. What they saw was a social compact deriving its authority from "the people of the United States" and designed in major part to serve liberal purposes: "to establish justice," "to secure the blessings of liberty," and by dampening the causes of civil strife, "to insure domestic tranquility." What they did not see—or would not see—was the fundamental inconsistency of slavery with all these purposes. Putting this enormity out of their minds, the Framers of the Constitution and the bill of rights saw the chief source of oppression in the power of the state and placed much of their hope for achieving liberal ends in a system of limited government.

The limits were both structural and substantive. Liberty was to be achieved both by the dispersal of the powers of government (see federalism; separation of powers) and by broadly worded prohibitions on various kinds of governmental interference with the rights of individuals. Although the liberalism of the Framers was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment's notions of rationality, these substantive limitations were not the product of abstract reason. Rather, they were designed to serve intensely practical purposes for the new nation. The liberal doctrines of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, for example, seemed essential to the citizen participation on which the continued legitimacy of government would depend. Similarly, the liberal doctrine rejecting divine authority as the basis for governmental legitimacy served the cause of domestic peace. The Framers, well versed in recent British history, need not stretch their imaginations to see how the interactions of religion and government might plunge a nation into civil strife. A major purpose of both the separation of church and state and the guarantee of religious liberty was to promote tolerance and thereby to moderate religion's capacity for political divisiveness.

Today's Constitution, the product of two centuries' worth of interpretation, differs dramatically from the Constitution of the Framers. Yet, what Louis Hartz called "the liberal tradition" has remained central in American constitutional law, surviving political and social upheavals and even a civil war of our own. Like all paradoxes, this contradiction of continuity and change is more apparent than real. Over the years liberalism, like the Constitution, has taken on a series of new meanings in response to changes in America's economic, social, and political conditions. Jacksonian democracy, the civil war and reconstruction, the late-nineteenth-century industrial expansion, the new deal, and the civil rights movement each brought a new version of liberalism that made its mark on the Constitution. The constitutional law of our time—like the term liberalism itself—evidences overlays of all these eras of social change, from the days of Adam Smith to the days of martin luther king, jr. The decisions of the Supreme Court, the nation's leading expositor of the Constitution, have both reflected the transformations of liberalism and contributed to them.

In the nation's early years the individualist liberalism of john locke was tempered by a vision of republicanism that imposed on the people's governors a moral responsibility to attune their public decisions to the general good, not merely their own self-interest or the interests of their constituents. This republican ideal was not wholly unrealistic so long as government was largely in the hands of the gentry. By around 1820, however, gentry rule had crumbled under the dual pressures of democratization and geographical expansion. In the era of andrew jackson the consent of the governed implied an electorate that was expanded to include most adult white men, and the body of citizens who could make effective use of individual freedom—especially economic freedom—was similarly expanded by a doctrine of equal liberties. The widening of the franchise was almost entirely the work of legislatures. The protection of economic freedom, however, became the business of the courts, acting in the name of the Constitution. The judicial activism of the marshall court (1803–1835) led the way in promoting a nationwide free-trade unit by striking down a number of state regulatory laws (see state regulation of commerce; contract clause).

During the period before the Civil War, another doctrine of liberalism came to the fore, with major assists from the adherents of abolitionist constitutional theory and from those who opposed slavery in the territories."Free labor" became a slogan of the new republican party and of abraham lincoln in particular (see labor movement and constitutional doctrine). The doctrine of free labor, infused with the liberal goals of democracy and individualism, received a strong impetus when the emancipation proclamation converted a war to save the Union into a war to free the slaves—a process that culminated in the thirteenth amendment, ratified in 1865.

Generously interpreted, the Thirteenth Amendment might have served as a foundation for a sweeping constitutional guarantee of racial equality and for congressional legislation serving this end. The politics of Reconstruction impeded such an expansive interpretation, but did produce the fourteenth amendment, with its broad guarantees of equal protection and due process, and the fifteenth amendment, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights. The three Civil War amendments, along with a series of civil rights acts, were seen by their proponents as establishing a principle of equal citizenship that would carry out some of the unfulfilled liberal promises of the Declaration of Independence.

These hopes were soon dashed. By the end of the century, politics—North and South—had turned away from a concern for racial equality. The Supreme Court had followed suit in a series of decisions that converted the Civil War amendments and the Reconstruction civil rights laws into guarantees of formal equality that offered little real protection for the substantive values of equal citizenship: respect, responsibility, and participation (see civil rights cases; plessy v. ferguson).

As politics increasingly turned to the business of industrial expansion, the dominant version of liberal individualism now focused on the freedom of industry and enterprise from economic regulation. Beginning in the 1880s, for half a century the Supreme Court policed the boundaries of economic liberty, striking down a great many regulatory laws in the name of economic due process and holding a number of federal statutes invalid as exceeding the power of Congress under the commerce clause. During this period, and especially during world war i and the Red Scare of 1919–1920, the Court gave little comfort to those who were urging a similarly expansive reading of other constitutional legacies of the Framers' liberal individualism—such as first amendment freedoms.

It took the Great Depression and world war ii to effect a realignment that would give the center of the political stage to the liberalism of the New Deal. This rendering of liberalism, like the liberalism of Reconstruction, emphasized the necessity of substantive underpinnings for individual liberty. The New Deal's legislative program centered on economic democracy and social welfare, and to achieve these ends its leaders sought to guide the national economy with governmental regulation on an unprecedented scale. During the first term of President franklin d. roosevelt, an activist majority of the Supreme Court fought a rear-guard action against the new liberalism in the name of the old. In 1937, however, before Roosevelt had made a single appointment to the Court, the majority shifted. From that day to the present, the Court has routinely upheld economic regulation both by Congress and by the states and has also upheld the legislative framework of the modern welfare state (see taxing and spending powers; spending power). During the 1930s and 1940s, the Court also took its first steps toward reinvigorating the First Amendment.

All these developments in constitutional doctrine supported a liberalism in which equality meant not just formally equal laws but the substance of equal citizenship. The Court cooperated with the political branches in an effort to bring freedom and security to people who had been seen as outsiders and so to achieve a more inclusive definition of the national community. For a time, the Cold War, like the Red Scare before it, laid a restraining hand on political freedom and also marked a group of dissidents as outsiders. But just as the Cold War reached the peak of its influence on domestic politics, the new liberalism, with its impulse to extend the blessings of liberty to all Americans, took a giant step forward. The warren court opened the modern civil rights era with the decision in brown v. board of education (1954).

theBrown decision began a "second Reconstruction," not only by expanding the meaning of constitutional doctrines of racial equality, but also by providing a catalyst for a vigorous political movement, Congress responded with two momentous laws aimed at extending the substance of equal citizenship to the members of racial and ethnic minorities: the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965. In its active liberal reshaping of constitutional doctrine, the Warren Court began in the civil rights field, but did not end there. Particularly during the last six years of the tenure of earl warren as Chief Justice, the court not only extended judicial remedies for racial desegregation but also promoted political equality by ordering reapportionment of legislatures on the principle of "one person, one vote." The court also greatly expanded the substantive protections of the First Amendment and recognized a constitutional right of privacy. In the field of criminal justice the Court accomplished the incorporation of nearly all the guarentees of the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Ammendment, thus applying them to the states as well as the national government. Furthermore, the court tightened the requirements of many of those guarantees, making th Constitution a significant limitation on police practices and the proceedures of state criminal courts.

Even after Chief Justice Warren retired in 1969, the constitutional momentum of the Warren Court carried the Court to further liberal activism. Most notably, the burger court in the 1970s expanded the reach of the equal protection clause to the field of sex discrimination and held in roe v. wade (1973) that the right of privacy largely forbade a state to criminalize a woman's choice to have an abortion. These two developments were closely related; women's right to control their own sexuality and maternity is critical to their ability to participate in society as equal citizens.

Political liberals generally have applauded all these constitutional developments. Yet each of them has produced its own "backlash" in the political arena. When President lyndon b. johnson signed the 1964 act into law, he predicted that the South would thus be handed to the Republican party. In Presidential politics, this prediction has been validated, starting with the successful "southern strategy" of richard m. nixon in 1968. Nixon explicitly criticized the Warren Court's decisions in the criminal justice area, and the four Justices that he appointed to the Court began the process that would eventually dismantle a considerable part of that doctrinal structure. As for civil rights, critics of the rehnquist court have said that the second Reconstruction lasted only a little longer than the first one did. In the 1980s a firm majority of the Court has embraced a doctrinal model centered on formal racial equality, sharply limiting the uses of affirmative action and other group-based remedies for the group harm of racial discrimination. The right of privacy has not yet fulfilled its promise as a generalized protection of individual freedom in matters of intimate personal relations, but rather has been narrowed even in the area of abortion rights. Recent First Amendment developments are typified by the public forum doctrine, which began as a means to expand expressive freedom and now serves mainly as a threshold barrier to turn away would-be speakers' claims. In the world of constitutional doctrine, as in the larger political world, modern liberalism has been obliged to assume a posture of defense.

The constitutional liberalism that animates political liberals today—and serves as the political right's bête noire—is a far cry from the liberalism of nineteenth-century economics that dominated constitutional doctrine for five decades. Its primary modern sources are the New Deal's social welfare concerns and the Warren Court's concerns for civil liberties and for the inclusion of subordinated groups in the promise of America. Even so, today's liberalism continues to draw on the liberalism that infused the framing of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment: the rule of law, tolerance as a means to civil peace, individual rights to freedom from excessive governmental intrusion, and equal citizenship.

Although the political resistance to the New Deal had its main base in the business sector, today business has largely made its peace with the newer liberalism—not exactly embracing regulation, but accepting it. The most vehement opposition to affirmative action programs, for example, comes not from business groups, but from "social issues" conservatives who equally oppose the recognition of abortion rights or claims to sexual freedom. These citizens, who are presently the dominant voices on the political right, do not reject the liberal constitutional ideals of equality, individual rights, or tolerance, but argue that in recent decades liberals on the bench have abused their power to write a perverted version of those ideals into constitutional law.

For the "social issues" conservatives, these constitutional ideals are unchangeable; they took permanent shape when they were written into the Constitution. In this view constitutional equality means formally equal laws and no more; individual constitutional rights are limited to the specific rights of life, liberty, and property that the Framers had in mind; and the reach of constitutionally required tolerance is permanently confined by the morality of the Framers (see conservatism and the constitution). They emphatically reject, for example, any claim to equality or rights of tolerance in the context of governmental discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, insisting that such matters be left to majoritarian community morality.

Constitutional liberalism is also under attack from quite another political direction, notably by theorists in the critical legal studies movement. These writers seek to "deconstruct" the very idea of rights by showing that all legal doctrine is indeterminate and therefore subject to manipulation in the interest of the powerful. Here, a countercurrent has developed among racial and ethnic minority writers who argue the practical utility of claims of rights in overcoming group subordination and point to the civil rights movement as an example of the liberating possibilities of rights—an argument the Framers of the Constitution surely would understand.

Another attack on liberalism by critical theorists, now joined by a number of feminist writers, centers on the potential of liberal-individualist attitudes for impoverishing the sense of self and submerging the sense of community responsibility—especially responsibility toward the down-and-out. Related to these concerns is the criticism that classical liberalism, locating the threat to individual freedom in the power of the state, neglects the oppressive capacity of nongovernmental actors, compounding the wrong by insisting on a strong publicprivate distinction. (See state action—beyond race.)

From both sides, then, liberalism is challenged for undercutting the claims of community. A liberal tolerance may result in constitutional protections not only for consensual homosexual behavior but for racist speech or pornography. (The antipornography cause in particular has produced an alliance between the political right and one branch of feminists.) Similarly, liberalism's long-standing devotion to Enlightenment-style rationality is under attack from both sides. The dominance of secular rationality is attacked by those who would promote school prayers or the teaching of creationism in public schools; and feminists and others argue that the instrumental rationality of the liberal welfare state's bureaucracy is alienating and dehumanizing.

The critical theorists' critique of liberalism has yet to make a significant impact on constitutional law. The critique from the right, however, has been warmly received by the federal judiciary, which in large measure was reconstituted during the 1980s. Now it is liberal judges who are fighting a rear-guard action. Yet some important elements of the liberal constitutional inheritance from the New Deal and the Warren Court seem secure. Citizens at all points on the political spectrum continue to hold the federal government responsible for maintaining the health of the national economy, including high levels of employment. Although social welfare programs perceived as aiding the minority poor are anything but robust, social security is the nearest thing we have to a political sacred cow, and some form of national health insurance seems likely to emerge soon. Explicit governmental discrimination against the members of subordinated racial or ethnic groups, we can assume, will be unconstitutional as long as we have the Constitution.

These examples are modest when they are measured against the modern liberal agenda; saying that the constitutional clock will not be turned back to 1950 or 1930 is not saying very much. For the moment, surely, liberals must seek their goals primarily in political arenas. In these arenas, however, we have already seen some important effects of racial equality in voting rights—for example, in the process of confirmation of Supreme Court Justices.

Undoubtedly, "the liberal tradition" will remain central in American constitutional jurisprudence because our constitutional culture is indelibly imprinted with the rhetoric of liberalism: equality, tolerance, individual rights. Another certainty, however, is that the meanings of these large abstractions will change in response to changes in American society. Today's political liberals will applaud some of those changes and regret others. But the process is one that no true liberal can lament.

Kenneth L. Karst


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