Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed

City Journal

Close Nav

Melancholy Liberalism

from the magazine

Melancholy Liberalism

Has a beleaguered intellectual tradition lost its optimism? Winter 2016
John C. Calhoun was regarded by some as a liberal because of his defense of individual liberty—albeit for the rights of whites to own slaves.

Was John C. Calhoun a liberal? The question sounds like a joke, or a provocation. Surely Calhoun, the defender of slavery and theorist of nullification, must be counted as a reactionary, an enemy of both liberty and progress. Yet the uncomfortable fact remains that Calhoun regarded himself, and was regarded by his fellow white Southerners, as a champion of liberty. In a famous incident at a political banquet in 1830, President Andrew Jackson offered a toast to “Our federal Union, it must be preserved”—to which Calhoun, his vice president, pointedly responded with a toast to “the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear.” The liberty he meant was, of course, the freedom of Southern whites to own slaves; and he was devoted to this liberty to the point of advocating secession if it were threatened by the federal government. If liberalism is the political philosophy that takes liberty as its primary value, doesn’t that mean that Calhoun was a liberal par excellence?

This dilemma is posed in two recent books about liberalism, which are otherwise diametrically opposed in their ideological and methodological approaches. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by the distinguished British journalist Edmund Fawcett, is an accessible account of major liberal politicians and thinkers of the last two centuries, written from a position of unillusioned but profound solidarity with the liberal tradition. On the other hand, as its title suggests, Liberalism: A Counter-History, by the Italian political theorist Domenico Losurdo, takes a debunking approach to that tradition. Losurdo argues that liberalism has never been interested in true, universal liberation but was instead an ideology by which privileged elites justified and celebrated their domination over workers, slaves, and conquered native peoples.

Both these writers recognize Calhoun as an important test case of the limits of liberalism—and still more, of its current moral claims. After all, if an out-and-out white supremacist and celebrator of slavery like Calhoun was a liberal in good standing, the name “liberal” can hardly function as an honorific. That is precisely the conclusion reached by Losurdo, who writes that in Calhoun, “we are dealing with one of the major authors and great minds in the liberal tradition and pantheon.” And if that is so, “we can no longer maintain the traditional (and edifying) image of liberalism as the thought and volition of liberty.”

Fawcett, on the other hand, bluntly labels Calhoun a “nonliberal,” whose defense of slavery puts him beyond the liberal pale. Yet Fawcett acknowledges that Calhoun “belongs in the story” of liberalism “all the same” because his “thoughts about the necessity of divided power” and the protection of minorities did reflect key liberal concerns. An ambiguity is plainly at work here: somehow, it is possible to be devoted to liberty but not to be a liberal—indeed, to be antiliberal. If so, then liberalism, despite its name, is not exactly a philosophy of liberty after all. It is, rather, what Fawcett considers it: a practice of politics, a way of responding to the challenges of capitalist modernity, a pursuit of a set of values that are often difficult to reconcile. In his ability to tolerate this ambiguity, Fawcett himself demonstrates one of the chief strengths of liberalism, just as Losurdo, in his determination to separate the sheep of history from the goats, revels in the righteousness of political radicalism.

By liberalism, Fawcett and Losurdo—and Larry Siedentop, in his important 2014 study Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism—mean rather different things; but none is talking about the left wing of the Democratic Party. That position in twenty-first-century American politics is just one on the broad historical spectrum of liberalism, and, depending on which of these writers you listen to, the spectrum becomes broad indeed. Fawcett, in keeping with his commonsense empiricism, restricts the name “liberal” to those thinkers and politicians who actually called themselves liberals. Because the word emerged in its modern, political sense only in the early nineteenth century—originally as a way of referring to Spanish opponents of monarchical power—that is when Fawcett begins his survey. He finds the first true liberals emerging around 1830, the moment when the English were debating Catholic emancipation and the extension of the franchise in the Reform Bill—two defining liberal causes. In addition to Britain, Fawcett focuses on the United States, France, and—more surprisingly—Germany, a country whose modern history might be characterized as a failure to develop a viable liberalism.

For political theorist Larry Siedentop, liberalism’s roots go all the way back to Saint Paul’s emphasis on individual conscience.

Losurdo, on the other hand, prefers a somewhat earlier date for the genesis of liberalism, placing it with Locke and the Glorious Revolution in the late seventeenth century. Much of his argument focuses on the eighteenth century in America and Britain, with particular emphasis on the American and French Revolutions. There are sound reasons for this focus—Locke figures in any textbook of political philosophy as one of the founders of liberal thought—but it also has a polemical purpose. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were also the height of the Atlantic slave trade and the expropriation of the American Indians; and in Losurdo’s view, these crimes were absolutely integral to the development of liberalism. “The rise of the two liberal countries either side of the Atlantic,” he writes, “involved a process of systematic expropriation and practical genocide.”

Siedentop, meanwhile, goes back a great deal further in his search for the roots of modern liberalism—all the way to Saint Paul, whom he regards as, in a sense, the first liberal. “Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus,” he claims, “amounted to the discovery of human freedom—of a moral agency potentially available to each and everyone, that is, to individuals.” If freedom, individualism, and equality are at the heart of liberalism, Siedentop believes, all these things were not so much modern inventions as Christian inheritances. His book is therefore an episodic history of Christianity from its beginnings to the Renaissance, in which he seizes on moments, figures, institutions, and ideas that can be taken to embody these liberal values—from Paul and Augustine down to the medieval canon lawyers and the scholastic debates between realists and nominalists.

What does the politics practiced by, say, Lyndon B. Johnson have to do with the tradition of John Stuart Mill, John Locke, or, for that matter, Saint Paul? Is there a common thread running through all the varied uses of the name “liberal,” or would it be better for the word to be retired, in favor of more relevant distinctions? Fawcett tends to that conclusion: “It may be that a balanced sense of ‘liberal’ without asterisks and qualifiers is for now beyond reach.” Yet the fact that the word remains such contested ground is a sign of how much power it continues to possess. It may be hard to define because it is the air we all breathe and the lens through which we see all political issues.

Indeed, the great story of the modern world is the triumph of liberalism—defined loosely as the politics whose primary value is individual freedom—over challenges from all its competitors. First, in the nineteenth century, liberalism overthrew monarchy, feudal privilege, and chattel slavery. In the twentieth, it fought a great war against fascism and a long cold war against Communism, winning both. Today, a large part of the world remains outside the liberal consensus, from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian nationalism to China’s one-party capitalism, but in its traditional heartland of Western Europe and America—the countries Fawcett writes about—liberalism remains predominant, though not unchallenged.

The struggles that continue in Western politics are, for the most part, family quarrels within this liberal tradition. Indeed, the politics known in America as free-market conservatism is denounced in Europe as “neoliberalism,” underscoring its connection with the Manchester liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century. In arguments about the proper balance between state power and the free market—that is, between “left” and “right”—both sides appeal to identical liberal values of freedom and fairness. However bitter that disagreement becomes—and it may be so bitter precisely because it is a family quarrel—no American politician advocates antiliberal principles such as hierarchies based on birth, or the abolition of private property, or the power of race and blood. We are happily constrained by the Constitution to frame all our political debates in liberal terms, as a matter of ensuring the rights of individuals.

It may seem strange, given the success of the liberal tradition, that today the word “liberal” functions primarily as an insult. To conservatives, liberals are “left” enough to appear spendthrift, permissive, unworldly, decadent. Yet to the Left, liberals are “right” enough to be considered hypocritical, complacent—an obstacle to true change. (Few words carry a stronger negative charge in left circles than “neoliberal.”) As a result, few people feel good about calling themselves liberals. Despite a few signs of revival, in the post–George W. Bush era it remains a label that most American politicians are quick to shun. And what is true of liberals as individuals is also true, Fawcett maintains, of liberalism itself: it has never been a confident banner to march under. It may be “a god that succeeded”—as opposed to Communism, the god that failed—but it remains “a rather neurotic god that frets about why it has succeeded, whether it really has succeeded, and, if it has, how long success can last.”

Each of these three authors notes this deficit in pride, and, in keeping with their different assessments of liberalism, they offer various reasons for it. To Siedentop, the problem presents itself as a cultural malaise. The West has lost any sense of its historical identity and mission: “We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. There is little narrative sweep in our view of things. For better or worse, things have just happened to us.” This anomie leaves Europeans, in particular, ill prepared to meet the challenges posed by fundamentalist Islam, which Siedentop sees as its chief rival in today’s “competition of beliefs.” “If Europeans understand ‘secularism’ in the terms favored by its critics—as mere consumerism, materialism, and amorality—they lose touch with their own moral intuitions,” he writes near the end of the book.

It is to counter this emptying-out of liberalism that Siedentop argues for its deep Christian roots. This is a paradoxical position to take, for if anything defines liberalism, it is the emancipation of society from the control of religion and churches. One of the defining achievements of nineteenth-century English liberalism, for instance, was to end the legal disabilities for Catholics, Dissenters, Jews, and others who did not take communion in the Church of England. For their part, religious institutions recognized this threat—none more so than the Catholic Church, which waged a long battle against liberal modernity. The gallery of liberal heroes includes many, from Galileo to Darwin, who stood up against supernatural claims to authority in the name of reason and science.

Siedentop never really comes to grips with these problems, however, because he does not write about the modern world at all. His survey ends in the fifteenth century, before the advent of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Though his title promises an examination of “the origins of Western liberalism,” the secular and anticlerical forms that liberalism actually took never enter his purview. Instead, Siedentop mines the Christian tradition for the seeds of much broader concepts such as equality and universality, which are indeed integral to liberalism, though far from the whole of it. Reading his book, you would never guess that modernity involved not a smooth growth out of the Christian past but a rather violent break with it.

At the same time, there is something excessively teleological, and therefore unhistorical, about Siedentop’s approach: the history of Europe is presented as an inevitable march to modernity. But he insists that it is in the Christian world, not in the democracy of Athens or the legal regime of Rome, that we should look for our own origins. Despite the Renaissance and Enlightenment fondness for the classical past—reflected in America in everything from the Federalist papers to the name and architecture of the Capitol—Siedentop argues that the Greco-Roman world was defined by its indifference to the individual, who stands at the center of modern liberal politics.

Drawing on the work of the nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges, Siedentop paints a picture of classical society as fiercely familial and corporatist. “Religion, family and territory were inseparable, a combination which turned ancient patriotism into an overwhelming passion,” he writes. In this world, there was no place for the free-floating individual. Human beings had value and standing only as parts of a family or a city, and those who did not belong—slaves, foreigners—had no moral or legal status. In a sense, Siedentop sees Christianity as the West’s 1,500-year tutelage in escaping this fatalistic, overbearing conception of society. Only once the individual became seen as the bearer of values and rights could something like the modern world emerge; and it was Christianity that taught the West to place the individual at the center of the moral cosmos.

Accordingly, Inventing the Individual searches postclassical Christian culture for the green shoots of what would eventually emerge as modern notions of freedom and equality. In Paul’s epistles, “the individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality”: by following Jesus and accepting grace, any person, however lowly, could win a place in the world to come. The rise of monasticism showed the world a new kind of elective community, in which individual monks and nuns chose to break with their families and live together under a mutually accepted rule. Charlemagne sought to spread Christian knowledge to every person in his kingdom, in what Siedentop calls an effort of “moral universalism.” The medieval papacy, by claiming universal sovereignty, cut across feudal social divisions: “The appearance of a sovereign authority distances agents from other roles they happen to occupy. . . . They are invited to develop wills of their own and become individuals.”

Clearly, Siedentop is making a wide-ranging claim. Many different elements of Christian society, over a span of 15 centuries, are enlisted in his argument about the power of the individual. Unfortunately, such an argument begs the question of why, if Europeans were living under an egalitarian spiritual regime for so long, the ideas of egalitarianism and individualism took 1,500 years to emerge. The book is studded with phrases such as “concern with the fate of the individual soul was nibbling away at a corporate, hierarchical image” and “for a millennium the doctrines of the church and the role of its priesthood had—without any socially subversive intent—weakened the association of hierarchy with reason.” But it is a questionable notion of causation that sees intellectual causes operating on such a long timescale, with no outward results, until they cause a sudden conflagration that overturns Christianity and the Church itself.

Surely, it makes more sense to say that the modern world changed because of distinctively new experiences and forces—the discovery of America, the fracturing of the Catholic Church, the rise of cities, and the emergence of capitalism and industrialism. Christianity may have provided the substrate, the ingredients, out of which this new world emerged, but it was not of itself a liberal force. After all, its universalistic spiritual tendencies proved largely compatible with feudalism and absolutism, not to mention the bloody persecution of infidels and heretics. It is hard to see in any of this “the origins of Western liberalism,” when liberalism was defined by its rejection of just those things. Siedentop seems to be reading the values of liberalism back into a tradition that conceived itself in terms of authority and hierarchy.

If Siedentop broadens the scope of liberalism until it loses coherence, Losurdo broadens it in such a way that it loses credibility. At the heart of Liberalism: A Counter-History is a scandalous fact that Losurdo writes about as if it were a new discovery—but it is a fact familiar to every American who ever took a high school history class: the paradox that the same men who created the United States as a haven of freedom and democracy, who gave the world its most inspiring defense of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” were also slaveholders. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison—all participated in that world-historical crime. And these same leaders, and later arch-democrats like Andrew Jackson, were also responsible for the conquest of North America and the expulsion or elimination of its aboriginal inhabitants.

Losurdo takes this charge and expands on it, giving chapter and verse to show how many partisans of freedom were also defenders of slavery and conquest, as well as outright racists. Locke was a shareholder in the slave-trading Royal African Company. Tocqueville was a cheerleader for the French conquest of Algeria and endorsed genocidal measures against the indigenous Arabs. (“All expeditions whose aim is to occupy or destroy existing towns and emerging towns seem to me useful.”) Nor was it only slaves and conquered peoples to whom the Western elite denied the liberty that it claimed for itself. Losurdo likens the British workhouses, established by the Poor Law of 1834, to concentration camps; and while this is an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the poor confined to them were deprived of liberty, if not of life.

The interesting question, however, is not whether the West long practiced and endorsed colonialism and racism—of course it did, as everyone knows. What Losurdo needs to show is that it was liberalism that was responsible for these crimes—rather than simple human rapacity, which has existed in all times and places. For Losurdo, it is no accident that “slavery in its most radical form triumphed in the golden age of liberalism and at the heart of the liberal world.” On the contrary, he understands liberalism as the delimitation of a “community of the free” that necessarily involves the creation of a corresponding population of the unfree. “The community of the free,” he writes, “was the restricted sacred space. It is enough, however briefly, to introduce the profane space (slaves in the colonies and servants in the metropolis) into the analysis, to realize the inadequate, misleading character of the categories (absolute preeminence of individual liberty, anti-statism, individualism) generally used to trace the history of the liberal West.”

Liberalism, on this view, is exclusive and aristocratic and not, as Siedentop believed, universalistic and democratic. To buttress this conclusion, though, Losurdo has to play fast and loose with the chronological and ideological definition of liberalism. For Fawcett, the term “liberal” does not come into play until around 1830; before then, there might have been radical or advanced or Enlightened thinkers, such as Voltaire or Jefferson, but it would be a mistake to call them liberals. For Losurdo, on the contrary, it is precisely the eighteenth century that is the homeland of liberalism, even though no eighteenth-century figure used the term in its modern political sense. (The examples adduced by Losurdo—as when Washington spoke of “the benefits of a wise and liberal Government”—plainly use the word in its older sense of “generous.”)

The reason for this choice isn’t hard to see. It was the eighteenth century that brought the slave trade to its height; if this was the work of liberalism, the idea has no integrity from the start. If, however, you consider the mid-nineteenth century the moment when liberalism came into its own, you are led to exactly the opposite conclusion: for it was the liberals of that era who abolished slavery in England and America. It is telling that Abraham Lincoln figures barely at all in Liberalism: A Counter-History, while Calhoun is so prominent. Losurdo sees Calhoun as the characteristic liberal, whereas American historians reserve the term “liberal” or “progressive” for Lincoln’s Republican Party, which fought and won the Civil War.

Throughout his book, Losurdo attributes to liberalism many of the ills which it was the achievement of liberals to abolish—for instance, the draconian English penal code. Meanwhile, he expands the term “liberal” to include not only Calhoun but also figures like Benjamin Disraeli, who was, of course, the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. “Construed in the broadest sense of the term, the liberal party encompassed both Whigs and Tories,” he writes. But construed that broadly, the term has no meaning. Meanwhile, any progressive tendencies in Europe or America are held to be, prima facie, not the work of liberals but of radicals: “Socialism issued in the recognition of every individual, independently of wealth, sex, or race, as a subject endowed at a moral level with equal human dignity and possessor, politically, of inalienable rights.”

What escapes Losurdo is the fact that all the evils he attributes to liberals—colonialism, racism, slavery, class oppression—were overcome, after great struggles and suffering, precisely in the liberal West and nowhere else. And by the end of his book, Losurdo more or less admits that his historical critique of liberalism makes sense only according to the values of that same liberalism. His real complaint is that the most advanced progressives of eighteenth-century Europe and America did not share the moral intuitions of the average citizen of today’s West. But it was precisely the progressive energy of liberalism that is responsible for the difference. Far from retarding the movement of history, liberalism—the politics of freedom, fairness, and human rights—has been the great engine of social progress, as it gradually overcame what Losurdo calls the “exclusion clauses” that marked its origins.

Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. As Fawcett insists throughout Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics: “The task of containing and utilizing conflict was never over, just as the task was never over of resisting power. For liberals . . . there was no escape from politics.” This Isaiah Berlin–like conclusion means that liberalism is seldom celebratory. Today, Fawcett concludes, we may have to make do with a “liberalism of melancholy,” as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.

Up Next
from the magazine

What’s Left of Malcolm Cowley

The famed critic’s insight deserted him when it came to politics. Adam Kirsch


Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.