Frontpaged at My Left Wing.
I’m relaunching a series I started at Dkos and at MyDD back in February. It will explore the historical roots of modern liberalism, using the Dictionary of the History of Ideas entry on Liberalism as our guide, adding my commentary along the way. I do this from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider, a radical with more patience and respect for liberalism than most other radicals.
At Mydd after the election last November, Chris Bowers did post-election analysis (links below the fold) which reached the conclusion that Democrats must grow and defend liberalism in order to win national elections, while attacking conservatism. This does not mean that all Democrats must become more liberal-though that would certainly be good, so far as I’m concerned–but it does mean that they must be willing to defend liberals and liberalism from conservative attacks, rather than joining those attacks, as the DLCers so often do.
One of the main things standing in our way is ignorance. Even many liberals are far more familiar with conservative attacks on liberalism than they are with liberalism itself. Hence, the reason for this series. A deep understanding of where liberalism has come from gives a much firmer footing for discussions about where it should go, and why.
Conservatives, of course, would have you believe that liberalism today has nothing to do with liberalism as discussed below. But if you read the entry in its entirety, you will clearly see that this is not the case. Liberalism has always evolved to meet changing circumstances, and address new issues, yet there is powerful continuity as well. (And radicals like me have often been needed to prod it along–whether we even get mentioned or not.)
In Post-Election Strategy Memo, Part One Chris observed, “Had the numbers of liberals and conservatives been equal, then John Kerry would have won with 54%+ of the national vote.” In Conservatism Is Our Enemy he noted that 84% of conservatives voted for Bush, while 85% of liberals voted for Kerry. In Where Is Liberalism? his state-by-state breakdown showed that liberals outnumbered conservatives in just 7 states and DC among 2004 voters.
From Conservatism Is Our Enemy:
We have long since left the era when the two parties could accurately be considered regional and ethnic coalitions rather than ideological coalitions. There are no longer any more conservative Democrats than there are liberal Republicans. A few of each kind manage to hang on, but the ideological vote in this election was clear:
________ Bush Kerry Margin
Conservative 84 15 69
Liberal 13 85 72
For that matter, the ideological vote was also clear in 2000:
________ Bush Gore Margin
Conservative 81 17 64
Liberal 13 80 67
These figures should leave no doubt about the necessity of defending liberalism against constant attacks, and hence, the need to understand it. Thus, this series.
All quoted text is from the Dicionary of the History of Ideas, specifically, it’s entry on Liberalism. This diary includes the entire introductory section, interspersed with commentary.
The liberal is concerned with aspects of freedom that have come to be important only in the modern age that begins with the Renaissance and the Reformation. Not that his idea of freedom is unrelated to older ones, for its emergence in the West was no sharp break with the past. The causes of the emergence are as much cultural and intellectual as they are social and economic. An idea-or, as in this case, a family of ideas- has its ideological ancestry as well as social circumstances propitious to its birth.
Okay, so four big things here:
First big thing: Liberalism is a creature of Western civilization. Yes, kiddies, that’s right! The very thing that conservatives accuse of being the enemy of Western civilization is in fact a product of that very same civilization. A defining product, as we shall see.
Second big thing: Liberalism’s connection with the Renaissance and the Reformation. These are watershed events in the history of Western Civilization. This refines and specifies the point just made. Liberalism is not some terrible doppleganger of the true “spirit of the west.” It comes out of the very social transformations that have defined the West as distinctively different from other civilizations that lack such fundamental breaks with their past, which are also ways of reconnecting.
This is absolutely crucial to an understanding of liberalism. Conservatives are very aware that liberalism has broken with the past. What they fail to appreciate is that liberalism frees us from slavish obedience to inherited forms, and in the process frees us to gain a fresh appreciation for the underlying origins and purposes behind those forms. Both the Renaissance-with its focus on Greek and Roman origins-and the Reformation-with its focus on early Christian origins-sloughed off a great deal of external tradition, but found fresh, invigorating ways of connecting more directly with an inspiring past.
Third big thing: Liberalism is an evolving ideology. As in “aspects of freedom that have come to be important…” We will see a lot more of this as we go along.
Fourth big thing: Liberalism is concerned with aspects of freedom. Not freedom per se. Individual freedom in an unfree society is not what liberalism is about-although it was, for some, in earlier stages of liberalism. But the passage we’re examining today ends with this clarifying distinction:
This is where the real difference between liberalism and libertarianism comes into sharp focus. Libertarians are basic asocial at best, anti-social at worst. The freedom of the hero is precisely what they want. They are all heros in their own minds. Atlas Shrugged and all that. Oh, the terrible torment of being a thirteen-year old boy and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders! Having to clean up your room!
Meanwhile, back at the Dictionary:
Fifth big thing: Liberalism derives from the coming together of the three main tributaries of Westren Culture: Judeo-Christian religion, Greek philosophy (which cannot be divorced from Greek culture more generally) and Roman law (also deeply entwined with Roman culture). Once again, this underscores how deeply rooted liberalism is in the Western Tradition.
Sixth big thing: Modern Liberalism has deep roots in pre-liberal ideas. It is not wholly foreign to them. It is not a monstrosity divorced from earlier roots. [Indeed, there is a persuasive argument that an earlier form of Greek thought-largely obscured by Plato and Arisotle, and the fragmentary nature of surviving texts-deserves the name of “liberalism” as well, although not in the fully modern sense.]
Seventh big thing: The shift from role-specific to universal individual rights is the defining distinction that marks the emergence of liberalism.
Eighth big thing: Liberalism creates a penumbra in the modern world. It sets a tone that guides modern thought, even that which challenges it. The example of Hegel is a crucial one, and more is said about him later on. More commonly, conservatives today routinely take liberal notions, like free speech, for granted, and even try to paint liberals as the ones opposed to liberal values. That’s one of the reasons for this tutorial-to flesh out the logic and historical development that establishes these as liberal values that are now accepted by virtually everyone.
Ninth big thing: Liberalism grows through dialogue, including dialogue with those who are not always liberals. Liberalism is not a top-down, historically fixed philosophy, but rather the product of endless ongoing debate. Dialogue, discussion and debate are central to liberalism, both as values and as the source of its evolving content. This reflects the deep kinship between liberalism and science. The capacity to absorb ideas from thinkers outside the liberal tradition is a sign of its strength, not weakness.
This last passage recapitulates and further fleshes out the first three big points:
- First big thing: Liberalism is a creature of Western civilization.
- Second big thing: Liberalism’s connection with the Renaissance and the Reformation.
- Third big thing: Liberalism is an evolving ideology.
And reminds us in part of the fifth big point:
- Fifth big thing: Liberalism derives from the coming together of the three main tributaries of Westren Culture: Judeo-Christian religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law.
This overview introduction of liberalism shows that the modern Western world we take for granted would be utterly unrecognizable without the liberal tradition. Without liberalism, we would, quite literally, still be living in a feudal, medieval world. It should not be surprising that that is precisely the sort of world that conservatives would like to return us to. A world quite similar to the one that bin Laden also wants to create.