The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Liberalism

By Simon, John | International New York Times, July 31, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Liberalism


Simon, John, International New York Times


A history of liberalism, told through the lives and ideas of a dynamic group of European and American thinkers.

Liberalism. The Life of an Idea. By Edmund Fawcett. 468 pages. Princeton University Press. $35.

Before it became a political philosophy, liberalism was not that difficult to define: A person was liberal if generous, catholic in taste or even excessively rotund. Liberal people may not have been universally admired, but few took to castigating them as dangerous to the health of the state. The opposite of "liberal" was not "conservative" but "strict." When Bassanio tells Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" that he will give her "the dearest ring in Venice," she replies, "I see, sir, you are liberal in offers." No one in Shakespeare's audience would have concluded that the dissolute nobleman with whom she banters stood on the left side of the political spectrum.

Once it did become a political term -- its first significant appearance took place in Spain under Napoleonic occupation -- liberalism, though now clearly identified with the political left, began almost immediately to run into considerable definitional difficulties. In the 19th century, a liberal could -- in fact most liberals of that era did -- distrust democracy; in the 20th, almost no one would confess to such a sin. Liberals could be nationalists or internationalists. They urged war and advocated peace. Some were open to parties to their left, such as socialists and Communists, while others were among the extreme left's fiercest critics.

Down to today, those who insist that markets work best without interference often identify themselves as liberal, if of the "classical" variety, but so do those "modern" liberals who call on government to correct market failures. "The word 'liberal' is notoriously slippery," writes Edmund Fawcett, formerly of The Economist, as he begins "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea," his richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts.

His "experience as a journalist served him well," Mr. Fawcett says of the British sociologist Leonard Hobhouse. The same could be said about Mr. Fawcett. Widely read, apparently conversant in at least three languages and a vivacious writer -- one German politician "had a beard like a yew hedge and a frown of stubborn ferocity" -- Mr. Fawcett aims to make liberalism comprehensible to contemporary readers.

To do so, he takes a commendably liberal approach, bringing as many within the tent as possible. Liberals, he insists, do not argue from a doctrinal checklist so much as they understand that conflict is unavoidable, distrust unjust authority, hold faith in progress and respect all, or at least most, people. It is more a way of doing politics than it is a fixed political position. The term is capacious enough to include both Jean-Paul Sartre and Milton Friedman, George Orwell along with Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Fawcett devotes roughly equal attention to liberalism's origins in the middle decades of the 19th century, its late-19th- and early-20th-century struggles with democracy, and its post-World War II resurgence, before briefly pondering its likely future. Names and events whiz by as he jumps from one country to another, offering synopses of innumerable books, some famous and others obscure, brief biographical vignettes and accounts of policies both successful and failed.

He bends over backward to include nations. Germany, he insists, ought to be part of the liberal story, and he profiles figures largely unrecognizable to English-language readers, such as Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, an advocate of mutualism, otherwise known as the cooperative movement; as well as Bismarck's opponent Eugen Richter, he of the yewlike beard.

A liberal surely ought to be inclusive, but Mr. Fawcett, in my view, is in this respect far too much so. The Savoyard royalist Joseph de Maistre, as anti-liberal a figure as one can find, is rightly called a "conservative reactionary," but the Nazi lawyer Carl Schmitt, who comes in a close second, is characterized, wrongly, as "ambiguous. …

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