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

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Liberalism as culprit

One consistent stream of criticism of liberal premises, with the characteristic one-sidedness of ideological disputes, has originated in the Marxist camp. Marxists have regarded liberalism as a typical bourgeois ideology, furthering capitalist interests at the expense of the working class, or engaged in the abstract utopian promotion of human rights rather than the concrete advance of material conditions. H.J. Laski (1893–1950), the British writer and socialist who went through a Marxist phase, offers a good illustration. Laski acknowledged in passing the existence of left-liberal thinkers, such as T.H. Green or Hobhouse, and even praised the early liberal breakthroughs such as advancing freedom of contract. But liberalism ‘forgot not less completely than its predecessors that the claims of social justice were not exhausted by its victory.’ The historical institutions created by freedom ‘veiled an internal decay’:

Liberalism has always been affected by its tendency to regard the poor as men who have failed through their own fault. It has always suffered from its inability to realize that great possessions mean power over men and women as well as over things. …Its purposes, no doubt, were always expressed in universal terms; but they were, in practical operation …the servant of a single class in the community.

In public political discourse in the United States liberalism is, from a very different stance, frequently—and dichotomously—paired with conservatism. Even professional analysts tend to work within the confines of that pairing. To suggest that Americans can simply be parcelled out between the two headings is a distortion of massive proportions. But it has immense rhetorical significance in American political debates and it spills over into political fault lines. On the whole, conservatives in contemporary America are thought to prefer the status quo, law and order, private property rights, markets, limited government, and a stratified society. Conversely, liberals are believed to prioritize big government (the legacy of F.D. Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s), civil rights (the legacy of the 1960s), tolerance, and greater social equality. The accuracy of those generalizations aside, they pervade politics at every level, from tax policy, to immigration, to health insurance, to abortion. They create dichotomous confrontations that do not enable any form of common ground or mutual respect that liberal theorists would seek.

In a notable book entitled The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology, the conservative American academic John H. Hallowell accused liberalism of moving from vigour to decadence. He held its tolerance and pluralism responsible for a sapping of the political and ideational will that eased the way for the interwar totalitarian ideologies of left and right. A more recent example of the unbalanced misrepresentation of liberalism occurred in the 1988 presidential campaign, focused in part on attacking the ‘L-word’, liberalism—described by one commentator as ‘a deliberate attempt to remove the liberal tradition from America’s political identity’. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, was ‘tarred’ with that brush, while liberalism was controversially equated with undermining national defence and leniency towards dangerous criminals. Unlike its European counterparts, the pejorative connotations of liberalism are strong enough in the USA to render the word tricky to employ favourably, and even its substitutes such as ‘progressive’ run into difficulties. Though there are recognizable liberal currents coursing through American politics, they relate to an ideology that all too often dares not speak its name.

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