What type of thing is ‘liberalism’?

What is “liberalism”?

Since I’ve been saying a lot about liberalism and its problems, a natural question is just what this liberalism is, where it is to be found, and why I think it’s so important. After all, the views I attribute to “liberalism” aren’t held in their totality by most people recognized as liberal, and if a particular person does hold some of them each view is likely to have limitations and a particular setting and coloration that obscure its implications for grand theory. Besides, other people have their own theories, about the Patriarchy, the Radical Religious Right, the Judaeo-Masonic Conspiracy and what not else. Why is my theory better than anyone else’s?

I think of “liberalism” at bottom as an expression like “English grammar” or “accepted standards of rationality.” It refers to a system of principles that orders what the members of a community think and do by providing the final standards they agree should apply when something comes in question. The members may not be aware of the principles explicitly, when asked they’re likely to state them differently (and usually incorrectly), and a lot of the things they actually do and say will be at odds with them. Still, if you look at what the community tends to view as right and how they justify things, and try to state the principles that determine their judgments, you’ll come up with a coherent set of highly abstract principles. Without such a thing the understandings and reactions of the members would be too much at odds for the community to exist.

So by “liberalism” I mean the abstract principles behind the social, moral and political views of those who recognize each other as liberals. If you want specifics, analyses by academic liberal philosophers like John Rawls are a good start, although naturally their word as to the nature of their cause is not any more final than the word of any advocate or apologist. The position of liberals in public life, however, makes liberalism more than the principles that define one community among others. Liberals dominate all reputable intellectual and cultural institutions. They are able to call themselves “progressive” and get away with it. They can present the history of the modern world as a history of progressive “liberalization.” All of which shows that liberalism does not merely define the outlook of one community among others but that in some perhaps more abstract way it dominates (and, at least in the Anglo-American world, has long dominated) Western public life as a whole. So to talk about liberalism is to talk about the principles publicly understood to provide the ultimate standards by which public life should be judged. And to talk seriously about the direction of our civilization is necessarily, among other things, to talk seriously about liberalism.

5 thoughts on “What type of thing is ‘liberalism’?”

  1. Defining political liberalism of the current generations
    The politics and jurisprudence of compassion for evil is a central and definitive aspect of this sort of liberalism. It is a branch of the new left, inheriting nihilism, abandoning claims to rationality and warrant from science, substituting racial and ethnic conflict for the class conflict of the period before they rejected ideology, and it is a kind of soft fascism, a fascism for pacifists. JSBolton

    • liberalism

      I’m going to risk all here and put the blame for liberalism wholly on the illusionist John Rawls, and specifically his second book published in 1986. My general thesis is that it just isn’t possible to look, as you would wish, into the face of liberalism and by its lights know its nature. There’s nothing there. For sure, there is a beating heart nearby. But it belongs to a different and thoroughly vigorous, marxist body.

      I’ll come at this, if I may, from the history of the British cultural left. Apologies to readers for the unacceptable ethnocentrism, but some while ago I had the opportunity to ask a Rawlsian liberal what, exactly, there was to our governing Labour Party that was not purely cultural marxist. “Redistribution of wealth and the pursuit of human rights abroad,” I was informed. Redistribution, of course, is not Rawls’ idea. It is wholly Old Labour – a prescription from the pre-deluvian age of outright class warfare when the Chancellor of the Exchequer stole 98% of unearned income at the top rate! The sum total, then, of liberal input into the politics of the modern left is, according to my Rawlsian interlocutor, the meddling of bien pensants in the lives of the fuzzy-wuzzies. That was the best he could do.
      Liberalism, I am bound to conclude, does not exist.

      What does exist is the crooked path by which a 19th century working class movement characterised by self-help (cooperativism and unionism) has transmogrified into the middle-class intellectual’s hegemonic obsession we see today. The rot set in – again I am speaking of my homeland here – not, of course, with Rawls but with the radical student generation of the 1930’s. The telling influence upon these people was the leading role of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the Popular Front against fascism. The romance of Spain and the subsequent death struggle with Nazism propelled some of the best academic minds of a generation towards the CP, culminating in the setting up of the Communist Party Historians Group in 1946. Already, these people were re-assessing their vision of politics and history and the proper relationship between theory and practise. Meanwhile, in the practical field the pro-Soviet enthusiasm of the Webbs had infected the Labour Party, and class struggle replaced self-help as the means of working class advancement.

      This was the grounding from which marxism economic and cultural bifurcated, the latter much fertilised by the influence of the Frankfurt philosophers (soon to return from America to Germany) and, much later, of Antonio Gramsci. So we can already make out the two great strands of marxist thought. Of modern liberalism, or anything pertaining to it, there was as yet no sign.

      Now, John Rawls is much respected in British left circles. He only wrote two books. The first, A Theory of Justice, was strictly a product of the Great Society. It didn’t arise in an intellectual vaccuum. It commended redistribution and perhaps even fathered US Welfarism. But, as I have already said, in the corporatist, ratchet-socialist Britain of 1971 that sort of thing was nothing new. Rawls’ next idea, cultural relativism, was equally unoriginal, indeed far behind the times here. The politics of cultural hegemony had taken hold in Britain back in 1970 when Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams got their neo-marxist hands on the Birmingham School. Over the next two decades it was their virus-like brand of hegemonic politics that succeeded class warfare as the left’s weapon of choice, and did so long before the Wall went down. Rawl’s dillatory, 1986 notion that a value-void state could found cultural equality on tolerance, concensus and popular activism was a weak-tea translation. It was also a chimeara. What we rally have is not tolerance but political correctness, not consensus but identity politics and not popular acfivism but the Long March through the Institutions – in a phrase, not liberalism but cultural marxism.

      The illusion that, actually, our left-of-centre politicians are sound, “liberal” chaps has to be cracked wide open. That they themselves believe wholeheartedly in the illusion doesn’t help. But we must not hand them, such a free pass. Neither should we engage in philosophical debate about liberalism’s nature, since by that means we only lend credence to the lie.

      • I don’t see the problem with
        I don’t see the problem with showing that if you take liberals at their word as proponents of continuous social progress to bring about (self-defining) liberty and equality ever more completely you end up with something very similar to what the radical Left always wanted, e.g. the abolition of family, religion and peoplehood, and a universal irresponsible bureaucracy that runs everything.

        My basic view is that commies in most ways were liberals in a hurry, and liberals in most ways were commies with a better feel for the difficulties of achieving “progressive” goals and the time and complexity required to bring them about. So it’s to be expected that the distinction between the two would vanish as experience showed the impracticality of some progressive ideas like public ownership of industry and liberalism worked out more and more of the implications of its basic principles.

        I suppose my basic point is that I think there was always a problem with liberalism. You didn’t need Marx to get what we have now, in the long run John Locke was enough.

        Rem tene, verba sequentur.

        • Jim,

          For your thesis to be accurate you would have to be able to trace modern liberalism back to its roots. I’m saying it cannot be done because there is a disconnect. The Lockean philosophy that patronised the old self-help movements did not survive the 20th century marxisation of those movements. The liberal type of person survived, sure – that educated, middle-class intellectual filled with compassion and benificent intention. But as I’ve tried to show in my thumbnail sketch of John Rawls, liberal ideas actually followed the development of marxist politics: first confiscatory redistibution then, when economic marxism had failed, culture war. That’s not an indicator of some inevitable, spiritual conflation twixt John Locke and Theodore Adorno. That’s a product of intellectual bankruptcy importing a going concern – and in Rawls case, doing it rather late.

          I’m a simple soul, Jim. Perhaps I lack your intellectual nuance. Forgive me if my repetitions add nothing very new to the thread.

          • I’m more inclined to interpre
            I’m more inclined to interpret a philosopher (like Locke) by reference to his basic principles than the specific things he says in connection with the particular circumstances and issues he was dealing with. Locke rejected natural hierarchies, he thought that society was best understood as an arrangement constructed to advance the particular mostly material interests of its members, and he wasn’t inclined to recognize moral truths that transcend that situation (cf. his comment regarding religion that every man is orthodox to himself). Given all that it seems to me that the current state of affairs is the natural outcome.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

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