The Strange Birth of Liberal France

By Lilla, Mark | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

The Strange Birth of Liberal France


Lilla, Mark, The Wilson Quarterly


The rise of a truly liberal political order was one of the glories of France's "trentes glorieuses," as the first 30 years after World War II came to be called. Yet only in more recent decades has a new generation of French thinkers begun to challenge the reign of such decidedly antiliberal intellectual giants as Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida. Herewith the history of a belated revolution.

For much of this century, a chasm has separated political philosophy in the English-speaking world from that of continental Europe. As is well known, this rift did not open overnight. Its origins can be traced back to the early 19th century, when distinctly national styles of philosophical reflection first arose in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. As late as the 17th century, European thinkers shared a common language, Latin, which allowed them to communicate directly with their contemporaries and indirectly with thinkers of the Middle Ages and antiquity. By the 18th century, Latin began to fall out of use, but the outlook of the Enlightenment was shared widely enough to permit the works of the Lumieres to be appreciated across the whole of Europe. Kant read Hume, Hume read Holbach, and everyone read Rousseau.

But after the Revolution this extensive community of mind disintegrated, and in its place there developed a number of independent circles defined more strictly by language and approach. The German philosophies of Schelling and Hegel, for example, could not be plausibly translated into the English vocabulary of Bentham and Mill. The two heterogeneous constellations we now call "Continental" and "Anglo-American" philosophy--the one growing out of German idealism, the other out of British empiricism and skepticism--owe their births to this 19th-century development, which might be called "philosophical nationalism."

The estrangement of political philosophy in the two traditions had more concrete causes, however. They were, not surprisingly, political. Here, too, we must turn back to the 19th century to understand how they came about. It is a historical commonplace that modern Anglo-American political thought remains within the narrow orbit of liberalism. This certainly is the view of Continental observers ever since Tocqueville, who have long expressed astonishment, whether admiring or critical, at the supposedly incorrigible liberal temper of the British and Americans. Over the past two centuries, liberal ideas and liberal government have survived the age of revolution, the age of industrialization, and the age of total war.

To those of us living in these liberal nations, our histories look far less harmonious. We think readily of our radical dissenters and our conservatives. Nonetheless, even our most radical and conservative thinkers have seldom strayed far from the fundamental principles of liberal politics: limited government, the rule of law, multiparty elections, an independent judiciary and civil service, civilian control of the military, individual rights to free association and worship, private property, and so forth. Our fiercest political disputes--whether over suffrage in England or over slavery and civil rights in America--have been over the application of these principles and the structure of these institutions, rarely over their legitimacy. However great the variety and contention we find within the history of our political thought, the fact remains that coherent antiliberal traditions never developed within it.

On the Continent they did. Indeed, the history of Continental political thought since the French Revolution is largely the history of different national species of illiberalism opposed to the fundamental principles listed above, albeit for different reasons. They were all born shortly after the Revolution itself, which had left Continental thinkers bitterly divided over its legacy. In every country there could be found a counter-revolutionary party defending church and crown and hoping to restore their authority; opposing them was an equally determined party desiring more radical forms of democracy or socialism to accomplish what the French Revolution had already begun. …

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