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 last, liberalism was generally unsuccessful as a political force.