Book Review

Fawcett’s “Liberalism” and the Historiographic Moment

The second of two responses in our mini-roundtable on Liberalism: The Life of an Idea focuses on potential areas of research on the history, or histories, of liberalism. Fawcett’s book is a noble attempt to talk about a complicated historical legacy, but other avenues of research may offer additional food for thought for scholars.–Robert Greene II

Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea is a needed attempt to distill the history of liberalism in the West to a readable, one-volume history. Covering the evolution of liberalism in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, Liberalism offers a history of the ideology from the early 19th century until the present day. Fawcett’s book, understandably, has a wide range of historical characters and offers some comparisons—and contrasts—across national borders. Liberalism says much about the history of a political ideology that has changed form so much over two hundred years. Matt Linton’s wonderful essay said a great deal about the book and the difficulty of writing such a history, and today I’d like to take some time to consider the book in context of recent works on intellectual and political history. At the same time, I’d also like to sketch out where historians can go in the future with histories of liberals, liberalism, and the institutions affected by that ideology.

Fawcett’s book divides the history of liberalism into four eras: 1830-1880, 1880-1945, 1945-1989, and 1989 until present. Each era presented liberalism with its own set of challenges, and for Fawcett, liberalism itself evolved as an ideology in response to these challenges—whether illiberal or semiliberal regimes in Europe, fear of mass democracy in the United States and elsewhere, the building of large nation-states, or the battles against Fascism and Communism in the twentieth century. Considering the 1880-1945 era especially, the recent Ira Katznelson book Fear Itself came to mind. Like Fawcett, Katznelson also argues for considering liberalism in the United States (and elsewhere) as being in an ideological struggle with Fascism and Communism during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. However, Katznelson’s book is far more about the concrete political practices of the era, and the American South takes center stage in his work. For Katznelson, the South’s political power in the Democratic Party shaped the New Deal, and its version of liberalism, for decades to come. He argued that this was important, as “it kept the South inside the Democratic Party, and thus inside the ambit of democratic politics.”[1]

Thinking about the American South and its role in the history of American liberalism (or for that matter, the history of American liberalism in the South) offers some caveats to the story Fawcett presents here. Now, before I go on, I recognize that with a work of synthesis some generalizations have to be made. But what I wish to do here is to consider how the history of liberalism, both as ideology and as a political practice, can be modified with some additional consideration of historical factors. For example, the South’s Democratic Party officials in the 1930s and 1940s very much considered themselves part of a liberal tradition—even, and especially, on the issue of states’ rights and segregation. But they also attempted to modernize the South, and it is both here and on the issue of race in the American South that we must consider how to tell the history of liberalism in America in the twentieth century. Fawcett’s discussion of the changing meaning of the word “liberty” over time offers some food for thought. He argues that it went from a Jeffersonian meaning of “a spacious idyll of independent farms and small government” to the Republican Party’s formulation of the term during and after the Civil War as an idea of “national progress and freedom for businesses” to grow and expand in their own way, to the twentieth century poles between Democratic Party liberalism during the New Deal and Republican Party formulations of small government and low taxes.

What we need here is to consider several questions. First, when it comes to American liberalism, just how much did factors such as race affect the formulations of “liberty” and “freedom”? Fawcett acknowledges the retreat of American liberals from ideas related to African American emancipation and political empowerment at the end of the nineteenth century. But with books such as Natalie Ring’s The Problem South, we can see that such issues of liberal reform involved reconceiving of the role of both African Americans and white southerners in the American body politic. So, as mentioned by Linton and commenters yesterday, identifying exactly what we mean by liberalism is key to getting the history right. While Fawcett does credit the American South with changing the contours of liberalism and the welfare state in the U.S., historians are starting slowly to move away from the argument that the South crippled the potential for a larger, more robust American welfare state. To put it another way, an examination of the liberal tradition in the South would be worth considering for some future intellectual historian.

In addition the communication between politicians, as much as between intellectuals, would provide some fodder about how to consider liberalism. In particular the relationships between American politicians—whether Republicans or Democrats, American liberals or conservatives (many of whom, for Fawcett, are Right-leaning liberals)—and their European counterparts deserves more attention. For example, Saladin Ambar’s slim but important Malcolm X at Oxford Union includes a great deal about British and American officials discussing the problem of race in both their countries. For the Democratic Party in the United States, and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, race appeared as a potential stumbling block to their rule as governing parties in the 1960s. A quote to start the book—“You are certainly right when you say that this is only part of a world-wide problem”—from a telegram sent by President Lyndon Johnson to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1965 is but one case in point about this cross-Atlantic communication. Of course books such as Atlantic Crossings and Uncertain Victory speak to a transatlantic dialogue about Progressivism and the changing shape of liberalism extending from the 1870s and going into the 1940s. But what about the Cold War era, when liberals, conservatives, social democrats, and some socialists from Washington to West Berlin fretted about the Soviet Union, decolonization, transnational social movements, and economic crises caused by oil shocks and stagflation?

Histories of the 1970s, such as Thomas Borstelmann’s The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality offers an example of a global history of the era. Still, there’s not much there about the communication between politicians and intellectuals across borders. Also, strangely, nothing is said in Fawcett’s book about “Third Way” politics, which were born in the 1980s due to the struggles of the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the Labour Party in the U.K., but came of age in the 1990s thanks to a post-Cold War world and a willingness by liberals, across the world, to embrace more market-oriented solutions and less “big” government intervention. Those officials—most notably Bill Clinton and Tony Blair—exchanged ideas and came to symbolize the revitalization of liberals who, ostensibly operating from a center-left tradition, had a chance to win political office in a more conservative era.

All of this isn’t to say I disliked Fawcett’s book. On the contrary it could be quite useful for anyone looking for a general history of liberalism. But for intellectual historians, it does offer much to consider in regards to how we continue to write and talk about liberalism. Liberalism in an American context needs more work in regards to the role of the South in creating the modern liberal tradition (and, of course, we’ll need to define what that means first). And having a firm grasp on how intellectuals and politicians communicated with each other across the Atlantic (and across the Pacific, for that matter) can offer some more to think about in regards to how definitions of liberalism changed over time.

[1] Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), p. 18.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great piece, Robert. I think the tie to Katznelson is crucial.

    Kit Smemo has been writing a lot lately about liberalism as a GOP creed, and especially about the tensions regarding liberalism in the South. I hope he stops by to comment.

    Also would love to know your thoughts about this text, in comparison with Fawcett’s:

  2. Thanks for the recommendation–both for Smemo (sounds like great work) and the book on liberalism. I’ll have to check that out.

    I think this all points to how liberalism still offers a lot for scholarly study. Due to my work on the 20th century, I was intrigued by Fawcett’s analysis of the 1930s and 1940s–the moment when liberalism was in serious trouble. I still think there’s more to be done there, but more importantly, I think a book on African Americans and ideas of liberalism is something that’s desperately needed. A lot of focus on Black intellectual history, not surprisingly, is focused on radical elements. But understanding African Americans and liberalism (and, again, I’m going for the more broad meaning of the term) could shed some light on how African Americans saw their plight in the United States.

  3. This is great, Robert. Along with Kurt, I’m really glad that you brought Katznelson into the discussion.

    Race draws the contradictions of American liberalism into such sharp relief precisely because it reveals the competing ideas of modernity driving liberalism as a set of ideas in the 20th c. As Gary Gerstle argues in his 1994 AHR piece “The Protean Character of American Liberalism,” liberalism encompassed “emancipation, rationality, and progress.” But different political actors mobilized vastly different conceptions of each these principles, especially in regard to race, and with vastly different outcomes for democratic practice. The southern Democrats in Congress so critical for making the New Deal upheld Jim Crow Herrenvolk democracy as a rational, progressive, and liberal project for modernizing and emancipating the white South from internal colonialism. The northern liberals who conceded (perhaps without too much prompting) to the myriad racial exclusions built into the New Deal in turn laid the institutional framework for another vision of modernity, one where white industrial workers utilized the rational tools of collective bargaining and social welfare spending to chart their own path to progress and emancipation.

    That said, perhaps discussions of “modernity” might be the better framework to interrogate the many meanings of liberalism.

    • Thanks for this, and it’s exactly what I was getting at with my discussion of Southern liberals in the early 20th century. I think your point about modernity may offer another, perhaps even more effective, way to get at what liberalism means. Based on glancing at the book on a “counter-history” of liberalism that Kurt mentioned above, it seems that the Losurdo book leans towards that sort of an analysis.

  4. Also, one essay that gets at these ideas of modernity, liberalism, and the South is Jason Morgan Ward’s “A War for States’ Rights: The White Supremacist Vision of Double Victory” in the Kruse and Tuck anthology, “Fog of War.” In it, Ward presents a compelling argument that many leading Southern politicians saw World War II as a fight against Fascism abroad and as a fight against larger government at home, which would have the power to interfere with Southern states’ laws based around race. The language they used was, in many ways, a direct response to the NAACP Double V campaign referenced in the title of the piece. But, to my original point, it shows how proponents of what Fawcett defined as liberalism used the enemy of Fascism (And Communism) to justify what, today, seems illiberal.

    • Thanks for the heads up about the Ward essay in Fog of War. It sounds really fascinating.

      • Hey Robert (and Kit),
        Great post and great back and forth here. Robert, I think your point about the importance of using more detailed historiographical studies to enrich and to challenge syntheses is crucial, especially as it seems that more and more historians, philosophers, and political theorists are turning back to the grand récit as their preferred form.

        I would also like to chime in about Jason Morgan Ward’s work: the book which contains the argument you’re referring to, Defending White Democracy, is great.

  5. Yes, Defending White Democracy is a wonderful book. Highly recommended and, I think, makes a point about the Civil Rights Movement that my colleagues at USC have been pushing in their work: that his idea of a Long White Resistance, designed to challenge the “Long Civil Rights Movement”, is essential if we’re to understand the era.

  6. And thanks for the comment as well Andy. We still have a long ways to go in regards to a scholarly understanding of the ins and outs of American liberalism.

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