Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

2

Ideological dominance through philosophical confusion

Liberalism in the twentieth century

Gerald F. Gaus


A surprisingly liberal century

In evaluating liberalism's success in this century, it would do well to recall briefly the prospects for liberalism a hundred years ago. At the turn of the twentieth century a number of thoughtful observers, from both the right and left wings of liberalism, feared that its days were numbered. In 1891 Herbert Spencer warned that hard-won liberal freedoms were being undermined by socialists and communists, who were leading civilization back to bondage. 1 To L.T. Hobhouse, the nineteenth century was the 'age of Liberalism, yet its close saw the fortunes of that great movement brought to their lowest ebb'. 2

Whether at home or abroad those who represented Liberal ideas had suffered crushing defeats. But this was the least considerable of the causes of anxiety. If Liberals had been defeated, something much worse seems about to befall Liberalism. Its faith in itself was waxing cold. It seemed to have done its work. It had the air of a creed that is becoming fossilized as an extinct form, a fossil that occupied, moreover, an awkward position between two very active and energetically moving grindstones - the upper grindstone of plutocratic imperialism, and the nether grindstone of social democracy. 3

Writing in 1911, Hobhouse held out hope that a revised liberalism, which had learned from socialism, might not only survive, but grow along with democracy, though he also thought it was possible that liberalism could 'gradually sink'. 4 And the prospects of liberalism did not quickly improve. Writing in 1927 Guido de Ruggiero analysed the 'crisis of liberalism'. 5 During the 1930s it was widely held that liberalism was besieged by fascism from the right and socialism and communism from the left. In 1935 John Dewey observed that liberalism 'has long been accustomed to onslaughts' from the right, but such attacks were mild compared to the new assaults from the left. In the minds of many people, said Dewey, 'liberalism has fallen between two stools, so that it is conceived as the refuge of those unwilling to take a decided stand in the social conflicts going on'. 6 Dewey too saw a 'crisis in liberalism' and believed that liberalism was in 'eclipse'. 7 Indeed, it seems that Dewey was convinced that socialism, not liberalism, was the wave of the future: 'we are in for some kind of socialism, call it by whatever

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