Liberalism: The Life of an Idea

Edmund Fawcett
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 464
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    Book Description:

    Liberalism dominates today's politics just as it decisively shaped the past two hundred years of American and European history. Yet there is striking disagreement about what liberalism really means and how it arose. In this engrossing history of liberalism-the first in English for many decades-veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

    Using a broad idea of liberalism, the book discusses celebrated thinkers from Constant and Mill to Berlin, Hayek, and Rawls, as well as more neglected figures. Its twentieth-century politicians include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Willy Brandt, but also Hoover, Reagan, and Kohl. The story tracks political liberalism from its beginnings in the 1830s to its long, grudging compromise with democracy, through a golden age after 1945 to the present mood of challenge and doubt.

    Focusing on the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, the book traces how the distinct traditions of these countries converged on the practice of liberal democracy. Although liberalism has many currents, Fawcett suggests that they are held together by shared commitments: resistance to power, faith in social progress, respect for people's chosen enterprises and beliefs, and acceptance that interests and faiths will always conflict.

    An enlightening account of a vulnerable but critically important political creed,Liberalismwill be a revelation for readers who think they already know-for good or ill-what liberalism is.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5003-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction It’s About More Than Liberty
    (pp. 1-26)

    As mine is a bold attempt to pull together a complicated story, a few more words are needed about what is being undertaken and why. That said, I at once urge readers who are keen to start to skip this explanatory introduction and go straight to the story. There they will meet the German scholar and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt, the first of a rich cast of exemplary liberal thinkers and politicians whose lives and thoughts illustrate this biographically led, nonspecialist chronicle of liberalism as a practice of politics. The explanatory introduction is for readers who want to see more...

  6. Part One The Confidence of Youth (1830–1880)
    • 1 Historical Setting in the 1830s: Thrown into a World of Ceaseless Change
      (pp. 28-33)

      On April 12, 1835, Wilhelm von Humboldt—diplomat, linguist, advocate of universal education, and liberal pioneer—was buried beside his wife Caroline in a small plot looked over by a statue of Hope in the park of their estate on the northwestern edge of Berlin. Through the oak trees lies Tegelsee, one of many lakes that give the city its sparkling light. A short walk away stands the family’s elegant villa, rebuilt to a neoclassical design by Prussia’s leading architect of the day, Karl-Friedrich Schinkel. The calm and seclusion give little clue that Humboldt lived in a world turned upside...

    • 2 Guiding Thoughts from Founding Thinkers: Conflict, Resistance, Progress, and Respect
      (pp. 34-97)

      It is tempting to wonder how Humboldt would have responded to this new world had he lived on like his younger brother, the explorer and naturalist, Alexander, into the 1850s. Though some have taken Humboldt for an open-minded but conservative friend of the old world, he voiced a conviction that runs like an arrow through nineteenth-century liberal thought. His leading idea—dashed off in a youthful essay,The Limits of the Effectiveness of the State(1792), but published in full only after his death—had a head and a tail, a positive and a negative part: developing human capacities to...

    • 3 Liberalism in Practice: Four Exemplary Politicians
      (pp. 98-116)

      Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) is one of the political giants looming over this first part of the story. Another is William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98). Each shaped and led a long-lived party of government, the Republicans in the United States, the Liberal Party in Britain. Without them the story might lose track of the ringing words that have moved liberals. A practice of politics needs not only an outlook with ideas but also an oratory to lend those ideas force. Lincoln and Gladstone appealed to liberal sentiments noted in the Introduction: hatred of domination, pride and shame in one’s society,...

    • 4 The Nineteenth-Century Legacy: Liberalism without Caricature
      (pp. 117-136)

      It is time to call on stage a personage pressing to speak from the start. “No you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not your master. You are all individuals,” shouts an exasperated Brian, mistaken for the Messiah in the filmMonty Python’s Life of Brian(1979). The adoring crowd at his window shouts back, fists raised, “Yes, master, we are all individuals.” There is a trace of oddity about any doctrine or movement that makes a thing of individuals. How individual is that? From Max Stirner’s Union of Egoists in the 1840s to Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” cult of the self...

  7. Part Two Liberalism in Maturity and the Struggle with Democracy (1880–1945)
    • 5 Historical Setting in the 1880s: The World Liberals Were Making
      (pp. 138-145)

      On May 20, 1880, a young don at Cambridge University in England asked a nineteen-year-old student of his with whom he was in love to marry him. To his delight, she accepted. He was Neville Keynes, a teacher of economics and philosophy. She was Florence Brown, the daughter of a liberal-minded Congregationalist minister and an early gainer from the waning of prejudice against women in higher education. The couple were soon married, and in June 1883 their first son, John Maynard, was born. Neville went on to write books on logic and economic method. Florence, who campaigned for the reform...

    • 6 The Compromises That Gave Us Liberal Democracy
      (pp. 146-172)

      If you exclude laborers and women from politics for lack of education, Condorcet wrote in 1790, soon the only people admitted will be those with public-law degrees. The point of his sarcasm was that civic rights ought not to depend on civic “capacity,” that is on education or property. Everybody, by implication, should be able to vote and run for office. A pathbreaking advocate of universal suffrage, Condorcet was pinpointing a difficulty that would dog liberals for much of the next 150 years. InWhat Is the Third Estate?(1789), Condorcet’s ally, Abbé Sièyes, had called for the removal of...

    • 7 The Economic Powers of the Modern State and Modern Market
      (pp. 173-197)

      By the 1880s, a body of ideas we may call free-market liberalism, or perhaps better business liberalism, formed a triangle. At one point was market economics, consolidated by the late nineteenth-century theorists of marginalism. At another was legal individualism, encapsulated in the doctrine of freedom of contract. At a third was the business press, which popularized market economics and sharpened it into a weapon of public argument.

      Two outstanding exponents of marginalism were Léon Walras (1834–1910) and Alfred Marshall (1842–1924). Walras was a Frenchman who taught as professor at Lausanne. Marshall, an Englishman, held the chair in economics...

    • 8 Damaged Ideals and Broken Dreams
      (pp. 198-274)

      The liberal world of the 1880s to 1940s was an imperialist world. As the very term “liberal imperialist” has come to sound self-contradictory, it would be nice for present-day liberals to treat the liberal empires of the nineteenth century as a legacy left to reluctant heirs, much as Schumpeter treated it when in 1919 he called imperialism an unwanted “heirloom of the absolute monarchical state.” Liberals, after all, resist power and resent domination, whereas imperialism involves domination of one people by another. How much easier for present-day liberals to suppose that empire had offended prudence and weighed on liberal conscience...

    • 9 Thinking about Liberalism in the 1930s–1940s
      (pp. 275-284)

      In 1926, the year in which an Italian court imprisoned the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, fascist thugs beat up the journalist Giovanni Amendola, an antifascist liberal. It was his third such beating. His fault had been to attack Italy’s dictator inIl Mondo, the liberal newspaper Amendola had founded. To describe Mussolini’s drive for mastery of society, Amendola put into circulation a new term “totalitarian.” In pursuit of overarching control, the “totalitarian,” Amendola suggested, used the state’s power to suppress rival parties, close all but submissive newspapers and promote doctrinal loyalty in schools. Amendola died from the final beating, but his...

  8. Part Three Second Chance and Success (1945–1989)
    • 10 Historical Setting after 1945: Liberal Democracy’s New Start
      (pp. 286-289)

      This was liberals’ second chance and they took it. In the West at any rate winners and losers alike now knew what to avoid. Liberal democracy, outlined in shadow by a Soviet Other and underwritten by the welfare state, became a Western norm. Individuals took center stage outfitted with freshly tailored rights. In age, liberal thought, professionalized in universities, began to look into itself and reflect philosophically on liberalism’s higher “whys.” Set against the recent past, liberal democracy was for most people a good kind of society to grow up in. To many elsewhere it was an enviable place to...

    • 11 New Foundations: Rights, a Democratic Rule of Law, and Welfare
      (pp. 290-315)

      “Intrigue, lobbying, secret arrangements, blocs,” Charles Malik wrote in his diary. “Power politics and bargaining nauseate me.” Malik, a Lebanese philosopher, was not describing tax fights, arms budgets, or interconfessional war but his work on the postwar Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In late 1946 the UN General Assembly appointed a drafting commission, which duly met in a disused gyroscope factory by Lake Success in Upstate New York. As one of the drafters, Malik found the confrontations and technicalities frustrating. For him the force and clarity of human rights shone clear. An Orthodox Christian who took his creed for a...

    • 12 Liberal Thinking after 1945
      (pp. 316-354)

      In the nineteenth century most of what was thought or said about liberalism could be expressed in terms that an interested reading public might understand. The characteristic form of liberal thought was the essay or public lecture. Constant addressed his thoughts on ancient and modern democracy to a political club. Mill wrote his political pieces for literary magazines. The liberal thinker was typically also a politician. Constant sat in the assembly, Guizot was prime minister, Mill was a member of parliament. They were writing for a wide public. They knew from experience what they were writing about. That breadth and...

    • 13 The Breadth of Liberal Politics in the 1950s–1980s
      (pp. 355-390)

      The “fundamental problems of the industrial revolution have been solved: the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship.” The American student of politics Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that in “The End of Ideology?” the final chapter ofPolitical Man(1960). His book, which dealt chiefly with Western Europe and the United States, offered copious statistical evidence to confirm the virtuous, mutually reinforcing links Lipset saw among prosperity, urbanization, education, and “stable” democracy, generously understood as the kind of politics found in Britain, the United States, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Much of Lipset’s work was done somewhat before the book was published,...

  9. Part Four After 1989
    • Coda Liberal Dreams in the Twenty-First
      (pp. 392-408)

      “What have you learned?” a reporter asked Vaclav Havel during a press conference in Prague on December 7, 1989. Czechoslovakia’s Communists were in full retreat. Their party had gone through three leaders within a month. Civic Forum, the opposition movement, was legal and at the door of power. Havel, a Czech playwright and ex–prisoner of conscience, was about to become his country’s president. His answer to the journalist’s question was characteristically serious and wry: “When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a...

    (pp. 409-432)
    (pp. 433-443)
    (pp. 444-468)