What Does the Word “Liberal” Mean?

The West is facing its most profound identity crisis since World War II. Events and movements like Brexit, President Donald Trump’s promotion of American nationalism, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s celebration of “illiberal democracy,” and Poland’s Euroskeptic Law and Justice Party have unsettled Western elites. This anxiety is compounded by threats from increasingly aggressive autocratic oligarchies in Russia and China. Furthermore, there’s been a recent spate of popular books heralding, and even celebrating, the end of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017), and Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018).

These works, written from a broadly conservative viewpoint, have exposed a rift within American conservatism.  On the one hand, some conservatives defend a form of classical liberalism (what I and others have called Natural Law Liberalism; see here and here) exemplified in the principles of the American Founding, and regard modern liberalism (or progressivism) as a corruption of classical liberalism. On the other side of the conservative divide are the new anti-liberals, who reject liberalism tout court as a destabilizing, despotic, or even incoherent public philosophy.

Those who follow this debate will be interested in what historian Helena Rosenblatt of the City University of New York has to say on the subject. Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, while ultimately disappointing, helps highlight the formidable challenge, if not impossibility, of settling on a single meaning of liberalism.

Multiple Definitions

When an ancient Roman heard the word “liberal” he thought of someone who possess the virtue of “liberality,” or generosity. When most Americans hear the word “liberal” they think of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. When most Europeans hear the word “liberal” they think of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Some scholars trace the roots of liberalism to Christianity, whereas others trace it to a “battle against Christianity,” to quote Rosenblatt (emphasis in original). This makes one wonder whether the word has any meaning at all.

According to the author, most scholars make the mistake of first defining liberalism and then recounting its history, but this “is to argue backward.” We human beings cannot, like Humpty Dumpty proposed, make words mean whatever we choose them to mean. “If we don’t pay attention to the actual use of the word,” Rosenblatt writes, “the actual histories we tell will inevitably be different and even conflicting. They will also be constructed with little grounding in historical fact and marred by historical anachronism.”

She points out, for example, that “the word ‘liberalism’ was not coined until the 19th century, and for hundreds of years prior to its birth, being liberal meant something very different.” For Rosenblatt, this means that the application of the concept to figures like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith is already problematic. Moreover, she usefully reminds her readers that many of the most prominent advocates of liberalism, although hostile to the ancien régime, were no friends of democratic government. The anti-democratic suspicions of most of the American Founders—not to mention more recent arguments like Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy (2016)—are at the service of liberal concerns.

So Rosenblatt proposes to determine the “meaning of liberalism” by attending to “how liberals defined themselves and what they meant when they spoke about liberalism. This is a story that has never been told.”

The story Rosenblatt tells is an engaging one, and her effort to pin down the meaning of liberalism with history is commendable. But her project ultimately founders against two obstacles, one formal, the other substantive.

Semantics and Social Realities

The formal problem is that the meaning of a word cannot be determined by history—or even by etymology—any more than it can be determined by ahistorical philosophy. As Rosenblatt herself indicates in the passage quoted above, meanings are determined by “actual use.” But the actual use of language, as F.A. Hayek often pointed out, is largely determined by rules which are (to use one of Hayek’s favorite lines from Adam Ferguson) “the result of human action but not of human design.” That is, although these rules are made by human beings, they not imposed a priori, but emerge spontaneously from the actions of individuals. Thus anachronisms can become idioms, so that just as a word like “Puritan” can be meaningfully applied to contemporary individuals and events, a word like “liberalism” can be meaningfully applied to earlier ones.

This semantic difficulty is compounded by the fact that the word “liberalism”—unlike, say, “tree”—has no objective, or extra-mental, referent to which we can point. It is what John Searle calls a “social reality,” whose meaning is constituted entirely by our intentional use of it.

The upshot is that although “liberalism” has a determinate range of meanings, the differences within that range can never be settled in an objective or impartial way. Within that range, the best we can do is make clear what we mean when we use the term.

The substantive problem is the bias Rosenblatt brings to her story of liberalism. Despite their pretenses to objectivity, histories are usually determined by a (usually unacknowledged) non-historical theoretical and evaluative framework that dictates which “facts” to highlight and how they should be ordered in relation to one another. Rosenblatt’s framework shows through in significant ways, of which I will highlight just two.

First, although she claims a purely academic interest in the meaning of liberalism (there is no mention in her book of the political developments with which I began this review), her tone reveals a more polemical purpose: to oppose a liberalism that affirms individualism, self-interest, and rights, and to promote a liberalism that affirms “duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, [and] generosity to others.” This for Rosenblatt means downplaying the Anglo-American writers and thinkers, and highlighting the Continental ones.

Thus she writes: “The idea that liberalism is an Anglo-American tradition concerned primarily with the protection of individual rights and interests is a very recent development in the history of liberalism.” Again: “The truth is that France invented liberalism in the early years of the nineteenth century and Germany reconfigured it half a century later. America took possession of liberalism only in the early twentieth century, and only then did it become an American political tradition.” And once more: “At heart, most liberals are moralists. Their liberalism had nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today. They never spoke of rights without stressing duties.”

These are questionable assertions, both as history and as political advice. If she had read Paul A. Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (2009), she would have traced the original sources of French liberalism to Anglo-liberalism through the singularly influential writings of the Baron de  Montesquieu, who, as if with Brexit on his mind, predicted that “in Europe the last sigh of liberty will be heaved by an Englishman.” (This quote is to be found in Rahe.) Surprisingly, Rosenblatt mentions Montesquieu only twice, and in passing reference.

She also would have seen how French liberals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau explicitly repudiated the Anglo model, with adverse consequences for French political history from the Revolution of 1789 to the present day. Rosenblatt relates much of that unfortunate 19th century history: the “brutal dechristianization campaign”; the Reign of Terror; the alternating cycles of mob violence and autocracy. Rahe puts it in larger perspective:

In the period since 1789, [France] has known five republics, two monarchies, two empires, and a dictatorship far more popular initially than anyone in postwar France was inclined to admit. Moreover, in this period, the French have lived under so many different constitutions—some say sixteen—that it is hard to keep count. Under each and every one of these regimes and constitutions, however, there has been one crucial element of continuity. Through thick and thin the administrative apparatus of the State has steadily grown in weight, in power, and scope. Today, more than one-quarter of those in the French laboring force work for the State, and the functionaries of that entity regulate daily life in minute detail.[1]

Yet this is the country we are to look to for a salubrious model of liberalism? It is strange that Rosenblatt focuses here, rather than following the French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville to the liberalism of England and America. There she could have found, alongside the promotion of individual and political liberty, a real, if more sober, endorsement of “duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, [and] generosity to others.”

Liberalism’s Deepest Root

Secondly, there is the manner in which The Lost History of Liberalism addresses Christianity. Although Rosenblatt refers to “liberalism’s fraught relationship with religion” as “perhaps the most important issue of all,” and although she relates many of the historical conflicts between orthodox Christianity and liberalism, it is not clear she understands what is really at issue.

The author is keen to highlight continuities between liberalism and the ancient political tradition, which is where she hopes to ground a more ennobling, public-spirited version of it. Thus she strains to establish a conceptual and etymological link between liberalism and the classical moral virtue of “liberality” (liberalitas), which she describes as “the moral and magnanimous attitude that the ancients believed was essential to the cohesion and smooth functioning of a free society.” She also points out that “liberals saw themselves as fighting for the common good and continued to see this common good in moral terms.” But she completely overlooks the profound rupture Christianity makes in the ancient conception of politics and the common good, and the enormous task of coming to grips with that rupture. While she devotes pages to 19th century liberal Christianity, Rosenblatt never once mentions Francisco Suárez or the School of Salamanca, which speaks volumes about her blind spot on this subject.

Before Christianity, religion and politics were, even if differentiated into distinct spheres, integrated into a comprehensive unity of membership. In the ancient world, each city had its own gods and its own cult, and so blasphemy was also treason. Even the freest city, Athens, put Socrates to death for bringing strange gods into the city.

Christianity—a universal, transpolitical, comprehensive and salvific religion—fundamentally transforms the meaning of politics, citizenship, and the common good. After its arrival, political membership can no longer be the highest form of membership, and the common good of the polis can no longer be the most comprehensive common good. This does not mean that political life no longer has a common good; it only means that the political common good will be limited and instrumental to modes of human flourishing that are not themselves political. Civil society is largely the ramification of Christianity.

Arguably, this separation of religion from politics is the deepest root of liberalism, and it has taken two millennia of thought and action to work out what it means in practice, a work that is not yet finished. It is precisely this separation that bothered the French liberals whom Rosenblatt admires, and their animosity led to the “brutal dechristianization campaign” of which she speaks. Thus Rousseau writes in The Social Contract (1762):

By separating the theological system from the political system, [Christianity] brought about the end of the unity of the State, and caused the internal divisions that have never ceased to stir up Christian peoples . . . Everything that destroys social unity is worthless. All institutions that put man in contradiction with himself are worthless.

Remarkably, in this long history, the author never directly raises (much less answers) the question of the proper scope and limits of political power. But we ought not forget that, for most people, this is the question at liberalism’s heart. This vast gap renders the book’s appeals to duties, patriotism, and the common good empty and equivocal. Reading it to the very end, one still does not know what liberalism is.

The Lost History of Liberalism is a timely, ambitious work. While it cannot be completely blamed for failing to settle the true meaning of liberalism, it can be blamed for its Continental partiality. I share Helena Rosenblatt’s desire to ground a humane, non-individualistic form of liberalism; I only wish she would have looked more closely at the deep resources within her own Anglo-American tradition.

[1] Paul A. Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 230-231.