[first appeared on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, July 5, 2014]
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. 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.”
 Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).