Book Review

Not My Liberalism (Guest Post by Matthew D. Linton)

Today starts a brief, but exciting, two-day mini-roundtable discussion on the new Edmund Fawcett book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Today’s post is written by Matthew D. Linton, a Doctoral candidate in History at Brandeis University. Tomorrow will see a post also about the book. In today’s post, Mr. Linton offers a keen and meticulous analysis of Fawcett’s book, and what it does (and more importantly, doesn’t) say about the history of liberalism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. –Robert Greene II

Confusion about liberalism’s definition is ubiquitous in American popular and scholarly discourse. To the conservative Fox News set, liberalism has become a catch-all term for ineffective governance and flimsy morals. During the 2004 Presidential election Republicans had so successfully tarred liberalism that Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry shied away from using the term. In recent years a resurgent left has also been critical of liberalism without properly defining it. Scholarly magazines like Jacobin have often criticized unspecified liberals for embracing capitalism and refusing to take strong ethical stands on poverty and racism. While the left’s criticisms of liberals undoubtedly hold true for some liberals, without an agreed-upon definition of liberalism it’s difficult to determine if sweeping criticisms from the right and left are defensible.

In his rangy synthesis, Liberalism: The Life of An Idea, Edmund Fawcett attempts to provide an authoritative definition of liberalism. By picturing liberalism as a fluid philosophy continually reacting to social, political, and technological problems, Fawcett convincingly demonstrates why liberalism has endured for centuries while evading definition. Liberalism’s very nebulousness explains its success. The expansiveness of the term allows it to accommodate seemingly contradictory values, such as individual freedom and social security, without fragmenting. Fawcett’s descriptive argument about defining liberalism from 1830 until the present is largely successful. His prescriptive attempt to highlight liberalism’s value through careful definition is less successful however. In his attempt to salvage a unitary liberalism, Fawcett recapitulates many of its most grievous sins including the exclusion of non-Western voices, papering over substantive ideological differences between thinkers, and dismissing the troublesome history of political liberals in power.

Fawcett’s definition is chronological and thematic. Chronologically, Fawcett situates liberalism in four separate epochs (1830-1880, 1880-1945, 1945-1989, and after 1989). His liberalism is not a static philosophy. Instead, it’s continually adapting to address the problems of its era whether they be social, technological, or intellectual. To Fawcett, liberalism’s adaptability explains why it has endured despite challenges ranging from economic depression to world war. “The story of liberalism is in a way a coming-of-age tale as liberals learn, or fail to learn, from experience,” Fawcett tells his readers (6). Despite this seeming capitulation to the Whiggish liberal narrative, he is careful to avoid a simple story of continual progress. Examining the efflorescence of human rights thinking after World War II, Fawcett shows how the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights built an intellectual consensus among its diverse body of drafters only to watch that agreement erode once the Declaration was passed on to the UN’s member nations. Critics of human rights feared that the doctrine would be overused or misused to infringe on sovereignty or force reparations on former colonial powers. Human rights doctrine had no suitable response to these critics. In Fawcett’s words, “Intellectual disenchantment with human rights grew with a seeming failure to find stable, publicly available defenses for them against mockers, debunkers, and deniers” (295).

Anchoring Fawcett’s liberal chronology are four persistent themes: conflict, resistance to power, progress, and respect (10). By conflict he means that to liberals “social harmony was not achievable, and to pursue it was foolish” (10). Fawcett’s liberalism is not a utopian philosophy. Instead, it’s pragmatic and looks to find temporary, moderate solutions to assuage, not eliminate, conflict. Second, Fawcett’s liberals are skeptical about power. Power should never be absolute and liberals sought to check or limit power whenever it became concentrated. The third and fourth ideas, progress and respect, are both fundamental and perpetually in conflict. To Fawcett, liberals view “human character and human society as…not static but dynamic” (11). This dynamism possesses promise and peril. People have the ability to improve their lives and communities. At the same time, there is always the threat that progress could be lost, order could be disordered, and liberty could be bound. At the same time, liberals are sensitive to coercive improvement. Individual autonomy should be respected by superior authority. Good liberals should not “obstruct and intrude on people in pursuit of their chosen enterprises or beliefs” (11). Fawcett is sensitive that these four themes are often in conflict. Still, he views “such disputes as family quarrels, not as wars among rival sects” and consistent with the liberal worldview.

Fawcett fundamentally views liberalism as a “practice of politics” instead of a speculative philosophy (25). His focus on political ‘doers’ leads him to populate Liberalism with a diverse and unexpected selection of characters. There are the expected political totems – Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – but there are also surprise guests including the obscure Franz Schulze-Delitzsch, Republican President Herbert Hoover, and free-market economist Milton Friedman. Ultimately, Fawcett is only able to fuse thought and political practice until World War II. He admits that, “after 1945 the separation of ideas and politics appeared to be complete as each side professionalized itself” (316). Fortunately for Fawcett, this separation was never complete and though more speculative philosophers figure into the post-1945 sections, political practitioners like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher loom large. Fawcett also focuses on political contributions over great books. For example, he dwells at length on Mill’s undistinguished career in Parliament while devoting comparatively little attention to his landmark On Liberty. Though this is a bit frustrating for the intellectual historian, Fawcett’s focus on politics allows him to avoid the more abstract and abstruse aspects of philosophical and economic liberalism and cover greater temporal and geographic ground. This simplicity, when taken with Fawcett’s facility as a writer, also makes Liberalism a useful foundation text for undergraduate courses on liberal ideas or politics.

Liberalism is an admirable attempt to synthesize the diverse strands of liberal thought and practice. Regrettably, Fawcett’s examination of liberalism is flawed by a search for its singular origin. He is interested in defining and delineating liberalism, not ‘liberalisms’. Fawcett’s justification for singularity is twofold. First, he’s concerned that once liberalism is divided it’s susceptible to infinite fracture. Second, he’s concerned about questions of authenticity in a fractured liberal environment. To Fawcett, multiple liberalisms beg the question about which is the authentic or true liberalism. At best debates about authentic liberalism “risks turning an indispensible label into an unnecessary puzzle”, at worst it could lead to a “hunt for nonbelievers” and a violation of liberalism’s fundamental commitment to toleration (25-26).

In fact, Fawcett fails to avoid his second pitfall because of his search for a unified liberalism. By looking for a singular origin, he recapitulates liberalism’s tendency to exclude dissenting minority voices. His story of liberalism is limited to a white, Euro-American worldview. The first, and only, prominent female character in the book is Margaret Thatcher and (aside from all the political problems of having Thatcher as your only female voice) she is not introduced until page 379. Fawcett’s non-Euro-American representatives are George Orwell and Albert Camus who, despite being born in European colonies, were thoroughly enmeshed in and responsive to European ideas and politics. As Erez Manela and other have shown, liberalism was a potent global idea by the dawn of the 20th century.[1] Fawcett’s liberalism fails to take into account liberalism’s globalism and fails to mention non-Western thinkers who were essential to its expansion. Fawcett’s liberalism is capacious enough to include the likes of Michael Oakshott and John-Paul Sartre, why not Lu Xun, Sun Yat-sen, and Jawrahal Nehru?

Fawcett’s exclusion of non-Western contributors to liberal thought and practice is particularly troubling because he bristles at and dismisses the harm caused by Western liberal imperialism. He buys into the canard of the liberal civilizing mission. To Fawcett, liberal empire’s good intentions make imperial practice’s violence and folly justifiable, if not justified. After briefly conceding that there was no ideological conflict between liberalism and empire, he stumbles into defending liberal colonial domination as “not all rapine, domination, and unequal exchange” (198). Liberal empire brought “progress and modernity” to areas lacking technological innovation and egalitarian values (198). Furthermore, Fawcett’s liberal empires were not seen as hated conquerors by colonized peoples. In fact, “liberal benefits of modernity were often sought for and welcomed by colonized peoples” (199). Obviously, there were excesses. He admits “that in raising up backward peoples and showering them with the boons of modernity, the governments of liberal civilizations had them killed at the same time by the tens of thousands” (204).

The very capaciousness of Fawcett’s liberalism also presents problems. While some of his characters like German legal theorist Carl Schmitt act as foils for his liberal protagonists, Fawcett willingness to include intellectuals and politicians who are rarely understood as liberal and who did not view themselves as such is puzzling. He often accuses his characters of denying their own liberalism. “Friendly critics suspected MacIntyre was, in effect, a closet liberal”, “Sartre was more liberal than he cared to admit”, and “Oakeshott’s liberal quietism was apt for a ship in calm seas” (353, 336, 321). Strangely, Fawcett does not question his liberal exemplar’s bona fides.

He also omits prominent liberals who could disrupt his definition. There is no John F. Kennedy to upset his liberal characteristic of resistance to power. His omission of Kennedy also makes the relationship between liberalism and conservatism unidirectional. Conservatives like Hoover and Reagan may be closet liberals or have liberal aims. Fawcett’s liberals are not susceptible to conservatism’s allure however. Kennedy’s (or even Obama’s) technocratic liberal militarism could serve as a useful corrective to this imbalance. Just as under the proper conditions conservatives have embraced a narrative of progress, liberals have justified reaction and maintenance of the status quo when under threat.

Fawcett’s Liberalism mirrors the promise and peril of its intellectual namesake. It’s an ambitious synthesis and tackles an important problem. Fawcett’s delineation of liberalism as fluid and historically contingent provides a useful way of thinking about it as an ideology. Liberalism’s fluidity also partially explains why it has evaded definition for so long. Still, Liberalism shares its namesake’s flaws. Its principle protagonists are white men who speak in universals about ethics and good government while presuming that non-male, non-white, and non-western people will share their values. Its focus on political practice tacitly accepts liberal naturalism, denying that liberalism is a manmade ideology. Its capaciousness and toleration of dissent (at least among white men) make me question liberals’ depth of feeling about their values. I appreciate Fawcett’s genealogy of liberalism, but as someone who has sometimes defined himself as a liberal I found myself constantly thinking as I read his book, “I hope Fawcett’s liberalism isn’t my liberalism.”

[1] Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent as usual, Matt.

    In Fawcett’s liberal use of “liberal” [Oakeshott, MacIntyre Reagan] you locate the Achilles heel of the entire enterprise; “Liberal” as a catchall for all political good, all societal progress.

    More helpful would be to first find a delineation between “liberal” and “left.”*

    [Needless to say, “conservative” becomes the catchall for all the endemic evils of the human condition, the enemy of all good. Karl Schmitt, JFK’s militarism. Thatcherism in all its forms and senses.]
    *If only because leftism has a less credible claim to “[temporary, moderate solutions to assuage, not eliminate] conflict, resistance to power, progress, and respect”–in fact, in some eyes not much of one atall.

  2. Nice review. From your description, this is surely not a book for me, and as is usually the case with such situations, there isn’t really a lot to say beyond that… But I do wonder if this text illuminates the need to return to debates within analytic philosophy of history, and in particular to the question of naming, in the Wittgensteinean/Kripkean sense.

    “Liberalism” as Fawcett uses it, apparently, is a sort of flaccid designator–it doesn’t function as a name like “Moses” or “The French Revolution,” nor does it argue from the general to the specific (the abstract notion that ideology can be scaled, and that given historical movements and tendencies can be meaningfully described against that stable, hypothetical array of viewpoints and commitments).

    I think the “flaccid designator” is a problem not only of historians of liberalism (though it certainly creates problems in the work of Mattson and others), but also of the Left and Right. Have we just given up the idea that “liberal,””Left,” and “Right” name anything other than “the stuff I like/am interested in?”

  3. Thanks for this post, very interesting! This line of discussion raises, for me, some questions about what it is we are trying to do when we define “isms” and why. I don’t think there are ever any right definitions but it seems there are ways of defining that can work better or worse for our present aims. With liberalism, for instance, it seems one common approach (at least among those sympathetic to what they think of as liberalism – yes, this probably all gets circular quick) is to try to manufacture a capacious golf umbrella, something sturdy and large that can unfold as needed and shield anything that could possibly stand beneath it from the rain of being called “illiberal” (as it were). The benefit of this kind of big-picture taxonomizing is that it can be intellectually generative and helpful in organizing information, but the risk is it can lead to time-wasting “no true liberal” parlor games.

    One can imagine an opposite approach: just stipulating an *extremely* thin, world-historical definition of liberalism (say, opposition to absolute monarchy and other forms of authoritarian rule) & then move on to discussing the various “denominational” distinctions, or types of liberals, within that. If that’s your approach, then you don’t need to spend much time asking if anyone who fits your (admittedly very basic, thin) definition is or is not “liberal”, you’re just asking *what kind* of liberal they are. The downside is this kind of thin definition might be denigrated as unsophisticated or imprecise (and of course, wouldn’t work at all for arguments made from or in the service of certain political commitments from both left and right that are rhetorically invested in defining themselves against “liberalism,” but that’s not so much a concern for me), but I think the upside is avoiding the aforementioned parlor games.

    I haven’t read the Fawcett book and don’t mean to imply anything about where he’d fall in my taxonomy, but I wonder if these poles might be useful ways of framing the problem. Of course, they also might not be at all! In any event, I suspect we might all have much to learn on this front from scholars of religion. By way of comparison, how do we define Christianity: Do we become invested in identifying “true” Christians (inevitably shaped by our own historical understandings and perhaps, if we have them, our theological commitments), or do we just assume a widely shared basic definition and move on from there (but if so, what’s the definition), etc.? Structurally it seems the questions and implications are not dissimilar.

  4. I’ve not read the Fawcett book, and like Kurt, this review convinces me that it is not for me. And this despite an interest in liberalism. —Also interested a comparison/conversation with Losurdo, than whom it seems like Fawcett could hardly be more different…

    But I have two material questions about it: I gather from this review that Fawcett really does want to find an original founding moment for liberalism, but what/when does he say this moment is? In the French context, there’s a strong argument that liberalism as a self-conscious political program emerged as a reaction to the Terror and to Napoleon. So by the early years of the 19th century (before 1830!) you’ve got people calling themselves liberals. But this isn’t where Fawcett points? At points it seemed like he was arguing for liberalism as a *position* or *positionality*–an argument that Aurelian Craiutu has made recently (using the idea of ‘moderation’).

    Second, I’m curious about the periodization. There’s a broad story that you have a ‘classical’ free-market liberalism up into the later 19th century. But it comes under various pressures and you get a ‘crisis of liberalism.’ Thomas Holt’s *Problem of Freedom* is at least partly about this in a British imperial context. But Carl Schorske describes a different one for Viennese liberals. And you could tell yet a different story about France…All of which is to say that the 1880-1945 period seems completely bizarre. It’s a whole series of crises, the nadir of liberal thought, you might say, except for a revival with its roots in the 1930s emerging in the postwar. How does he tell that story?

  5. My apologies for neglecting your thoughtful responses this weekend, but my response time was squeezed out by moving and a wedding.

    I think Tom and Kurt are responding to different aspects of the same problem in Fawcett’s book – and political thinking generally – which is the superficial treatment of non-liberal politics by self-identifed liberal thinkers. Fawcett’s liberalism is a flaccid designator. It functions as an expression of political preference instead of elucidating a coherent collection of ideas. Fawcett is willing to include most political ideas under liberalism’s umbrella, provided they can reasonably be squared with representative democracy (or the quest for representative democracy). In reality, Fawcett’s liberalism functions as anti-authoritarian/totalitarian more than it presents a set of ideas that are designated as “liberal.”

    I found Fawcett’s liberalism particularly odd in its treatment of conservatism. Unlike George Nash’s nuanced depiction of conservatism with its disparate strands of thought, Fawcett’s conservatism is monolithic. It’s perpetually backward-looking, reactionary, and elitist. Fawcett fails to account for the ways contemporary conservatism, particularly in its American iteration, has accommodated itself to a progressive ideal in relation to free market economics and the way freedom from political restriction allows for the progressive realization of innate human ability. Conservatism has learned some lessons from liberalism, but it is not reducible to liberalism in the way Fawcett reduces conservative thinkers to incognito liberals.

    Sara, I think the idea of liberal ‘denominations’ shows a lot of promise. Fawcett does not discuss anything like it in his book because he is so focused on providing liberalism with a holistic definition. I also think there is potential in thinking about certain liberals who cannot be pigeonholed into specific denominations as ecumenical liberals. Though it may sound peculiar, I think of William F. Buckley as an ecumenical conservative of sorts; drawing from diverse conservative traditions in order to create a conservatism more responsive to mid-20th century Americans.

    Eric, Fawcett does not have a specific country or moment. He sees liberalism as a response to the inability of absolute government to accommodate the changes wrought by technological and scientific modernization at the end of the 18th century. He thinks versions of liberalism came about independently in Great Britain, France, and various German states at approximately the same time. So his unified vision of liberalism is that it was a response to a single development, but its diversity is accounted for in the various political traditions (later including the US) in which it sprang up.

    Fawcett’s discussion of liberal economics is patchwork. His section on 1880-1945 is primarily interested in examining the new political challengers to liberalism: communism and fascism. Economically, he tells the story of a liberal state increasingly involved in the social life of its people. He talks about progressivism and populism in the United States culminating in the New Deal programs and the creation of the warfare state. There is crisis in Fawcett’s story, but it’s between those who believe the fundamental tenet of liberalism is liberty versus those who believe liberalism has an obligation to provide social services for its people. Ultimately, the latter group win out by 1945, but lose out in his third section culminating in the fall of the USSR. This is definitely an oversimplification on Fawcett’s part and speaks to how the breadth of his narrative forces him to collapse distinctions between nations.

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