THR Blog   /   June 7, 2019

Liberalism Strikes Back

A review of Helena Rosenblatt’s “The Lost History of Liberalism”

Rita Koganzon

( Portrait of Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817). Château de Coppet Collection/Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy Stock Photo.)

Liberalism today finds itself in the strange position of being the political philosophy that everyone lives by and no one wants to defend. On one side, conservative or self-described “postliberal” critics like Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and the writers for American Affairs have revived a long-running argument that, whatever its expressed aims, liberalism is fundamentally the elevation of individual self-interest against all competing moral ends, and consequently will always devolve into public license and state tyranny. On the other side, left critics of “neoliberalism” tell the story of liberalism’s inevitable, imminent collapse from its founding self-contradictions by emphasizing the economic rather than the moral aspect of the problem, citing liberalism’s tendency to subject everything to market forces that erode the possibility of a public good. Both sides converge in their resentment of “elites,” an amorphous class of fashionably educated urban professionals to which, coincidentally, most of these critics belong.

This is not to say that liberalism is wholly bereft of defenders. Within the academy, there have long been scholars intent on showing how liberalism has always been more sensitive to human sociability and the preservation of virtues and communal institutions than those who accuse it of advancing unfettered individualism, atheism, and market fundamentalism allow. This has been the special project of scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment, but others have called attention to these moral concerns in the thought of John Locke and even Thomas Hobbes. In popular discourse, a cadre of libertarian-ish defenders of free speech such as Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker have emerged as liberalism’s main exponents. But neither of these strategies has persuaded many people who didn’t already believe.

In The Lost History of Liberalism, Helena Rosenblatt, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has tried a new approach: She argues that, strictly speaking, liberalism really grew out of the preoccupations of post-revolutionary France. Her account proceeds through the violent political history of that country during the nineteenth-century,  when liberalism experienced one setback after another, and offers occasional excursions into Germany, Spain, and Britain, where, with the exception of the latter, liberalism was generally unsuccessful as a political force.

Prior to the nineteenth century, instead of “liberalism” there was “liberality,” which originated in ancient Greek and Roman ethics and carried over into medieval and early modern Europe, where it continued to connote only a personal moral disposition to the virtue of generosity rather than any political program of reform. Although many Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with liberal education and the formation of “liberal minds,” this project was limited to the nobility, and, Rosenblatt observes, “no one spoke of liberalism during the eighteenth century.”

Rosenblatt credits Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël with the gradual discovery of “the set of precepts we now recognize as ‘liberalism,’” which emerged from their efforts to “consolidate and protect the main achievements of the [French] revolution” after its disintegration and Napoleon’s rise to power. In response to each republican collapse and failed revolution, French liberalism expanded to include more demands: universal suffrage, a response to the social question and the alleviation of poverty, labor unionism, women’s rights, sexual freedom.

Internecine controversies also erupted among liberals, particularly over the role of the state in the economy. Rosenblatt is especially concerned to show that, although socialists conflated liberalism with laissez-faire, liberals themselves were divided about the economic responsibilities of government.  Indeed, a strong interventionist strain existed within liberalism almost from the beginning, most famously in Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.  Both also advocated state intervention in other realms, including universal public schooling. Rosenblatt’s account of this advocacy is particularly interesting because it traces the impact of American ideas on France, the west-to-east movement of  transatlantic influence being generally considered a rare occurrence.

Rosenblatt’s effort to vindicate liberalism by demonstrating that it was never what critics on the right and left said it was in the first place results in a highly readable and engaging history of nineteenth-century French politics, but it’s not entirely convincing. The distinction Rosenblatt relies on between “liberality” as an individual virtue and “liberalism” as a set of government policies is blurred by precisely those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers most often held up as the first liberals, and whom Rosenblatt is determined to exclude from that category. On Rosenblatt’s own account, Locke understood toleration as a personal virtue, but he also required the state to defend it as a matter of policy. Nineteenth-century French liberalism may well have been a more self-conscious political movement, but, in Rosenblatt’s telling, it was not notably more coherent in its substance than eighteenth-century British Whiggism, and certainly not more politically effective than its nineteenth-century British counterpart, which operated within a stable constitutional order and consequently achieved much more in practice than the French model. French liberalism is undoubtedly philosophically significant and deeply intertwined with other European liberalisms, but Rosenblatt does not definitively show that the precedence we tend to give to the British as progenitors and exemplars of liberalism is misplaced.

More interesting in some ways than the historiographical task of defining liberalism is the contemporary political polemic underlying Rosenblatt’s contention that liberalism was, from the outset, concerned with developing “character” and promoting the common good, addressing the social question, and building national community and solidarity. That the “postliberal” left—the resurgent socialists and critics of neoliberalism—is Rosenblatt’s primary audience is clear from her tendency to emphasize those elements of nineteenth-century liberalism most congenial to twenty-first-century socialism.

Nonetheless, the book still offers an important rejoinder to the caricature of liberalism as, a religion of individualism, while at the same time illuminating some of the underlying reasons for the postliberal right’s discontent. While Rosenblatt shows quite convincingly that early-nineteenth-century liberalism was occupied primarily with defending the freedoms of speech and the press, expanding the franchise, and pursuing economic justice for the poor, she also shows that, by the second half of the century, liberalism had devolved into advocacy of free love and sexual libertinism. These latter causes certainly remain with us, but it’s less clear how they demonstrate a concern with character and the common good. If anything, they simply vindicate Deneen’s claim that careful attention to the first principles of liberalism reveals how they lead inexorably to licentiousness and social breakdown.

Rosenblatt’s account also illuminates and, indeed, substantiates one of the underlying grudges of many on the postliberal right: French liberalism’s deep antipathy to Roman Catholicism. With the exception of a handful of moderate Catholics such as Charles de Montalembert and Tocqueville, who tried to reconcile Catholicism and liberalism, French liberals singled out the Catholic Church as their especial nemesis, becoming fanatically anti-Catholic. They not only pursued absurd hopes that liberal sects like Unitarianism might replace it but also went so far as to try to precipitate a Protestant Reformation in France. Even the French enthusiasm for the American model of public education was distorted by this preoccupation: The French came to see the American public school system primarily as a means to defeat Catholicism, which was hardly its purpose in the United States.

The church responded to liberalism with equal antipathy, inveighing against it as satanic, materially supporting reactionary parties and publications, and positioning itself as the defender of all Western tradition and authority. Rosenblatt delights in cataloguing the hysteria of Catholic writers who described liberalism as a “mortal sin” and a force of the devil. But she misses an opportunity to examine a serious question, though one whose importance is perhaps clearer to the right than to Rosenblatt’s secular audience: Is liberalism compatible with the church, or have so many liberals from Locke onward been right to see in Catholicism a dangerous exception to the possibility of toleration?

While the postliberal right appears to be preoccupied with polemics against political liberalism, many of the conservative postliberals are Catholics, and what becomes clear from Deneen’s 2018 manifesto Why Liberalism Failed in particular is that the real problem with liberalism preceded liberalism itself. Liberalism and its conjoined twin, capitalism, were the political and economic manifestations of the logic of the Protestant Reformation. The source of contemporary atomistic egoism and market fetishization is not ultimately the philosophy of Locke or Hobbes, but the theology of Luther and Calvin. To overcome liberalism consequently requires overcoming Protestantism. The Lost History of Liberalism, rather than answer this radical demand, seems content to confirm it. But in spite of Rosenblatt’s effort to dismiss Catholic antiliberalism, the violent political instability of nineteenth-century France suggests that liberals do have something to fear from a revanchist Catholicism.

The United States, however, is not France. On Rosenblatt’s account, the French understood American politics to be conceived in liberal principles and, especially after the Civil War, to represent an almost pure distillation of liberal politics, as indeed did the Catholic Church, which referred to “Americanism” interchangeably with liberalism. For us, there can be no return to a unified church-state, and any effort to bring about such a union would require a no less violent rupture with our own political tradition than the French Revolution was for France. That  a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals would desire such a rupture in the United States is no small irony.

It was, incidentally, a French liberal, Tocqueville, who saw the possibility not only for rapprochement between Catholicism and liberalism in the United States but for the growth and flourishing of Catholicism within American democracy:

America is the most democratic country on earth, and at the same time the country where, according to trustworthy reports, the Catholic religion is making the most progress.…You see today, more than in earlier periods, Catholics who become unbelievers and Protestants who turn into Catholics. Men today are naturally little disposed to believe; but as soon as they have a religion, they find a hidden instinct within themselves that pushes them without their knowing toward Catholicism…they experience a secret admiration for its government, and its great unity attracts them. If Catholicism succeeded finally in escaping from the political hatreds to which it gave birth, I hardly doubt that this very spirit of the century, which seems so contrary to it, would become very favorable to it, and that it would suddenly make great conquests. (Democracy in America, part 3, 754–55)

This reads as an astute prediction to anyone who has watched the conversion of so many serious-minded Protestants to Catholicism over the past few decades. And for much of the postwar period, American Catholicism did manage to “escape from the political hatreds to which it gave birth,” making common cause with evangelical Protestantism and even elements of American Judaism and Islam to defend the liberal principle of religious liberty. Recovering a “lost history” of liberalism that takes Tocqueville’s vision and his opponents seriously might go some way toward preserving this ecumenical coalition against dismemberment at the hands of postliberals.