The "Isms" in Liberalism

By Lewis, Paul H. | Modern Age, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

The "Isms" in Liberalism


Lewis, Paul H., Modern Age


The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

While following today's angry clashes between Democrats and Republicans in the daily newspapers, on the nightly news, or through the Internet, older Americans might be forgiven for looking back nostalgically at the Eisenhower years as an Era of Good Feelings. In the midst of that era, Louis Hartz published his famous The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), which argued that all American politics and history takes place within a Lockean liberal consensus. Because they lack a feudal past, Americans are not class conscious and therefore are not susceptible to the lures of either the extreme Right or extreme Left. Even the Southern planters of the Civil War period argued for their "rights" under the Constitution.

Of course, the Eisenhower era included the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which bullied people in the name of fighting a vast communist threat; but Hartz folded them into his consensus as examples of recurring "Red Scares" that occurred whenever "Americanism" felt threatened by outside ideological forces. Now comes Yuval Levin, the founder and editor of National Affairs and former member of President George W. Bush's domestic policy staff, to update Hartz's thesis.

Levin views American liberals and conservatives as two opposing currents of a common stream of Lockean liberalism. These currents go back to two talented English polemicists, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Thomas Paine (1737--1809), whose ideas are reflected in today's Right and Left: Tea Partiers and Progressives, as well as moderates.

But why should Anglo-American liberalism embrace such antagonistic currents? The answer lies in its very vagueness as a catch-all philosophy. Early English liberalism was the result of a slow, centuries-long accretion of liberties. This process reached a climax of sorts in the revolutions against the Stuart kings, Charles I and James II. As a result of the so-called Glorious Revolution, in 1688, according to Bertrand Russell, "the first comprehensive statement of this liberal philosophy is to be found in [John] Locke, the most influential though by no means the most profound of modern philosophers." Since liberalism developed over such a long period of time, it is perhaps not surprising that Locke's "comprehensive statement" was a jumble of ideas that might contradict one another if they were carried too far. For example, Locke thought that people had a right to choose their own form of government, yet he also advocated separating government into legislative and executive branches with checks and balances in order to limit majority rule. Liberals also believed in individual liberties, including the right to acquire private property, while proclaiming that all men are equal. For the Fabian socialist intellectual Harold Laski, that was a fatal contradiction, because liberal governments usually serve the interests of those who accumulate the most property, while the "rights" supposedly enjoyed by the rest of society remain mere abstractions. Real freedom, he asserted, requires equal material conditions, or socialism.

Nevertheless, these internal tensions within liberalism did not become obvious until the French Revolution. Before then, British liberals could celebrate the gains they had won with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 against James II: a Declaration of Rights, greater freedom for Protestant nonconformists (but not Catholics or Jews), more press freedom, guaranteed annual sessions of Parliament, and a limited monarchy. These gains were still fresh in the minds of Englishmen when Burke and Paine first came into prominence as supporters of the American Revolution. Both men thought the Americans had been abused by the British government and had the right to revolt. With the more radical French Revolution, however, Burke and Paine found themselves on opposite sides. …

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