Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The rise of social liberalism

Significantly, liberalism was coming to terms with the fact that groups and communities were formative social units. True, there still were tensions between the more individualistic and the more communal tendencies within liberalism and those were not resolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, nor have they been since. But the flame of sociability, already detectable in the proto-liberalisms of earlier centuries, now began to blaze strongly. The main site of that new illumination was not a liberal nationalism but a liberal communitarianism. A number of factors contributed to that further change of direction of liberal thought.

First, instead of a theory of individual utility as advocated by the Benthamite Philosophic Radicals, a new notion of social utility came to the fore. If individuals could maximize their own well-being, some liberals asked why that could not apply to societies as well. Inspired also by continental philosophers, a number of British liberals argued that society was entitled to pursue social goods, provided that they did not clash with individual rights. Indeed, there were areas of social activity, such as investment in long-term future projects or the protection of marginalized groups, that were beyond the capacity of individuals to facilitate.

Second, new theories of social evolution were gaining ground. The influence of Charles Darwin stretched way beyond the natural sciences. Some theories of social evolution were notorious for apparently suggesting that the survival of the fittest principle operated also among human beings and that—nature being ‘red in tooth and claw’, in Alfred Tennyson’s memorable phrase—competition and the elimination of rivals were inescapable. But another version of evolutionary theory, less dramatic but in the long run more influential, maintained that human beings were becoming more rational and sociable. Unlike all previous forms of life—so the argument ran—that process endowed them with the ability to change the trajectory of evolution itself and to plan the course of their own futures in conjunction with others. Left-leaning liberals were fascinated by that theory’s message. It appealed to their belief in human rationality and in the making of valuable choices for humanity at large. It suggested that human progress and improvement were inherent to social life. It also normalized human cooperation as a biological imperative. All those beliefs were now seemingly supported by the kind of scientific evidence liberals of all generations had always sought.

Third, and connected to the cooperative evolutionary principle, thinkers such as L.T. Hobhouse and J.A. Hobson—the two leading intellectuals of what came to be known as the new liberalism—likened a social entity to a living organism. The main effect of that analogy was to emphasize the close interrelationship and interdependence among members of a society, suggesting that they could not survive on their own without the support of others. Why then was that a liberal argument, considering that the energetic and assertive individual had been so central to that ideology? After all, organic theories of society often imply that the whole is more important than individual parts, positing the illiberal message of the sacrifice of individual good for social good. Hobson, in particular, cleverly inverted that implication. A living body was only healthy when every one of its parts was healthy. It was therefore in the joint interest of both individuals and society to cultivate personal flourishing. That form of liberal organicism produced the most striking instance of the combination of the individual and the social tendencies within liberalism and, as we shall see in , had crucial political and institutional consequences for that ideology in the 20th century.

Fourth, liberal reformers evinced a growing sensitivity to the social consequences of the industrial revolution. They began to realize that bestowing political rights, such as the right to vote, to liberty, or to protection from harm, was no longer adequate to safeguard the well-being of a nation. The gradual granting of political rights to the working class had given them a voice which touched the hearts of middle class social reformers. As more and more people moved to the cities, the abject conditions of poverty suffered by the dispossessed could not be justified. Terrible housing conditions, periodical unemployment, sickness, and the lack of education disabled many people from enjoying their newly gained right to representation, which proved to be nominal rather than real. Liberals now argued that political rights had to be supplemented by social rights in order for individuals to achieve full social membership and citizenship. Tellingly, they saw that as an extension of the idea of liberty—liberty not only from tyranny and harm by others, but from avoidable and debilitating deprivation.

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