Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

LIBERALISM RESARTUS

The term “liberalism” has always enjoyed a separate existence away from the constricting, formal, and austere world of political concepts and theories. To be liberal evokes generosity, tolerance, compassion, being fired up with the promise of open, unbounded spaces within which the free play of personality can be aired. Yet the clues to liberalism's political nature are not hard to detect. Generosity suggests the dispensing of bounties beyond the call of duty—to prioritise justice as the first liberal virtue is unnecessarily reductionist. Tolerance suggests a flexibility, a movement, a diversity—of ideas, of language, and of conceptual content—that sets liberalism aside from most of its ideological rivals, whose declared aspiration is to finalise their control over the political imagination. Compassion suggests an empathy, a sociability, an altruism, that pays homage to the human networks in which individualism is integrally and beneficially enmeshed, as well as an ardent desire to alleviate human suffering. And openness suggests that the permutations of human conduct and thought are unfathomable and wonderfully unpredictable. Lest we forget, those are liberalism's most remarkable qualities.

Just over a century ago, something significant happened to liberalism that brought those qualities into particular prominence. It underwent a series of transformations that changed the nature of Western politics, while altering the internal balance of liberal political thought itself. Many factors contributed to that change. Among those were the growing reach of democratised politics; the (re)discovery of social relations as partly constituting the individual; the popularisation of evolutionary theory grafted on to theories of progress; a new attentiveness to the psychology of human vitality; the identification of additional barriers to human action and development that required novel conceptions of liberty; and, not least, a reconceptualisation of politics as a responsible, responsive, and facilitating communal activity. That process occurred in a number of cultural locations: in France, in the Antipodes, in the United States, in Italy. But above all it took place in Britain, and Britain—then still a net exporter of political ideas—persevered in its nineteenth-century role as the leading producer and disseminator of cutting-edge liberal theory and of the practices that accompanied such thinking. The chapters in this first section are intended both to illustrate the potential that is always available in liberal

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