In Search of Liberalism: Ideological Traditions, Translations and Troubles in Thailand

By Larsson, Tomas | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, November 2017 | Go to article overview

In Search of Liberalism: Ideological Traditions, Translations and Troubles in Thailand


Larsson, Tomas, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


In the late 1800s, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asked a classic question of comparative historical sociology that has continued to generate debate ever since: Why is there no socialism in the United States? Likewise, in the early stages of the Cold War, when other Southeast Asian countries saw the eruption of Communist insurgencies, scholars sought to explain the exception of Thailand (Thompson and Adloff 1950, p. 51). This article addresses a similar question, focused on another revolutionary ideology: liberalism. The conventional wisdom holds that, "In Southeast Asia, the influence of classical political liberalism is extraordinarily limited" (Rodan and Hughes 2014, p. 6)--and in this instance Thailand is no exception. Yet scholars have largely taken liberalism's sorry fate in Southeast Asia for granted, with few puzzling over the causes or questioning the veracity of its limited influence.

This article proposes that it is time to reconsider this dismissive attitude towards liberalism. The history of liberal political thought in Asia has yet to be written, but important pieces to the puzzle have been put into place. To date, however, the endeavour has focused squarely on South and East Asia (Bayly 2011; Fung 2008; Moon 2014; Nolte 1987), while scholars have overlooked Southeast Asia, except for the Philippines (Claudio 2017). Consequently, there is an opportunity to contribute to this growing literature by recovering the history of liberalism in Southeast Asia. Even if the search for Southeast Asian liberalism leaves us in the end with meagre rewards, the literature on liberalism in other parts of Asia suggests that one cannot dismiss the relative absence of a meaningful liberal tradition in Southeast Asia with an easy wave of the hand in the direction of colonialism and ostensibly Asian values.

The main objective of this article is to add another piece to the jigsaw, by seeking to shed light on the fate of liberalism in one Southeast Asian country--Thailand. As a first step, it combs through the literature on Thai political thought. What evidence, if any, of a liberal tradition can we find therein? As a second step, the search moves beyond Thai thinkers. To what extent has liberalism been reproduced in Thailand through the translation and publication of works belonging to the Western liberal canon? As a third and final step, the search moves from the historical to the more recent past. To what extent has Thailand's recent political experience--turbulent, conflict-ridden and repressive as it is--stimulated Thai intellectuals to turn towards liberalism in their search for solutions to their country's political woes?

The inquiry proceeds on the basis of a specific understanding of what liberalism means. The approach is sociologically inspired, and defines liberalism as a tradition constituted by the classification by scholars of political thought of prominent ideological entrepreneurs--and of the arguments associated with them--as liberal. (1) By this definition, liberalism as a distinct ideological tradition is a product of the intellectual labour performed by scholars who conduct research into and write and teach about politics in general and political thought in particular. It is through precisely such labour that a shared understanding that liberalism is one important strand of Western political thought, distinct from and in competition with rival ideologies, has emerged. This labour has also led to broad agreement that there is such a thing as a Western liberal canon, with thinkers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls widely recognized as icons of Western liberalism. (2)

While this essay adopts a non-prescriptive definition of liberalism, scholars who work on political ideology may conceptualize liberalism in other ways. One such conception, falling short of a definition, will be useful to keep in mind as this article unfolds. Fawcett (2014, p. 10) conceives of liberalism as a "practice guided by four loose ideas". …

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