‘Liberalism: The Life of an Idea’ reviewed by Daniel J Smith

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015. 496pp., $24.95 / £16.95 pb
ISBN 9780691168395

Reviewed by Daniel J Smith

About the reviewer

Daniel J Smith is a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of …


Edmund Fawcett, in his Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, offers an intellectual history of the liberal tradition in the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany. Fawcett’s account challenges the liberty-centered accounts given in other recent works on the topic, offering a conception of liberalism based on the principles of civic republicanism rather than an unswerving commitment to liberty. Fawcett defines liberalism as “a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power – liberalism on this telling has an outlook but is in itself a practice”. (xii) On this telling, liberalism is more methodology than ideology; for Fawcett, liberalism’s value comes from its flexibility in responding to novel social and political challenges rather than from its firm ideational foundation.

Fawcett’s work divides the history of liberalism into four periods: Liberalism’s youth between 1830-1880, its maturity and “struggle with democracy” between 1880 and 1945, its “second chance” between 1945 and 1989, and a time of uncertainty for the future of liberalism from 1989 to today. Fawcett argues that the rapidly changing political, economic, and social conditions of Europe and the United States in the early nineteenth century set the stage for the ascent of liberalism. The transformative political revolutions of the late nineteenth century marked a historic shift away from absolutist monarchism and towards (limited) constitutional rule in the new republics granted life by revolt or reform. The Industrial Revolution meant radical change for all the social classes of the time; the peasantry moved to the cities and became the proletariat, the aristocracy began to experience a decline in social privilege, and the ascent of the bourgeoisie accelerated as it accumulated vast wealth. The disintegration of the social ties which had long held together European society contributed to revolutionary ferment seen in 1779, 1830, and 1848; meanwhile, the rejection of the older social order served as the basis for the new American republic forming across the Atlantic.

Early liberals like Humboldt, Tocqueville, and Guizot were acutely aware of this societal transformation and the new challenges that it posed. Drawing on their Enlightenment forerunners, these and other early liberals rejected the dogmatic pillars of religion and monarchy upon which their societies had been based. Instead, they turned to Reason as the basis upon which the rules and order of society could derive. Fawcett argues that liberalism, since its beginnings in this period, was based on four core principles: acceptance of the inevitability of conflict, distrust of power, faith in progress, and respect of recognition of people regardless of who or what they are. Fawcett traces the way that these principles were employed by liberal thinkers and politicians to respond to the numerous dislocations and crises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the Industrial revolution, democratization(s), two World Wars, structural changes in the economy, the end of colonialism, among other challenges. Fawcett displays skill as a historian of ideas in his examination of the debates between contemporary liberals about the possible resolution of particular problems. Whether they be the varied responses to crises in capitalism offered by Keynes, Hayek, and Fisher, or the critical and sympathetic responses to Rawlsian liberalism by Dworkin, Nozick, or Cohen, Fawcett is able to situate these liberal debates within the politico-historical circumstances that led to their relevance.

Fawcett does not dwell excessively on illiberal political thought or movements beyond offering reasons for their exclusion from the liberal tent. For the purposes of this review it is worth examining why Fawcett counts socialism as illiberal. According to Fawcett, socialism departed from the first principle of liberalism in its assertion that a post-capitalist society would no longer be characterized by conflict. In addition, the socialist emphasis on equality would necessitate the violation of some rights – in particular the right to private property – that are inviolable under liberal dogma. Fawcett notes, however, that “shared belief in progress made liberals and socialists potential allies”; the success of social democratic parties in the twentieth century indicates that such an alliance is both politically and ideologically feasible. (66)

In Marx’s (and Marxist) thought, liberalism plays the role of the hegemonic ideology within the capitalist mode of production: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Engels offered this account of ideology as ‘false consciousness’ to explain why the working class would support ideas and politics contrary to their own material interests. The increasing dominance of liberal ideology was noticed by Antonio Gramsci, whose theory of hegemony helps to explain how the dominant class continues its rule without explicit coercion. The ruling ideas become common-sense and the basis upon which the social imaginary is constructed; thus, liberal individualism becomes the way that the proletariat comes to understand the world, rather than through the lens of dialectical materialism that would allow for the achievement of class consciousness. On this account, liberalism’s democratizing reforms and concessions to organized labor and social democratic parties represents a way for the ruling class to earn the consent of the subordinate class to govern. Despite such reforms, liberalism’s commitment to property rights allows for the continual exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie; it is by this mechanism of exploitation that the capitalist mode of production is maintained.

Such a critical account of liberalism neglects the positive political achievements of liberal democracies in the twentieth century: suffrage for women, formal (if not substantial) equality for minorities, freedom of speech, among others. Despite these successes, contemporary critics of liberalism abound. Post-Marxist Chantal Mouffe has argued that liberalism, with its concomitant commitment to the protection of rights, and democracy, meaning both political and economic democracy, are incompatible. For Mouffe, contemporary Third Way neoliberalism attempts to smother the necessary antagonism between these irreconcilable political traditions. Such an uneasy synthesis must inevitably collapse, whether it be at the hands of right-wing populism or some other force. Domenico Losurdo, in his Liberalism: A Counter-History, has highlighted the uglier aspects of liberalism that its defenders may not wish to bring attention to. John Calhoun, a prominent American individualist and proponent of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, was praised by British liberal Lord John Acton as a defender against ‘democratic absolutism’ whose arguments were ‘the very perfection of political truth.’ Progressive liberal and American President Theodore Roosevelt did not find it contradictory to compare support for “unrestricted individualism in business” with support for slavery while also advocating for the repression of labor agitation by lining up union leaders and executing them by firing squad.

On this telling, Mouffe, Losurdo, and other critics of liberalism concur with Fawcett on liberalism’s status as a method rather than a set of core ideas. For these critics, however, this method allows for the rhetorical justification of unjust practices and institutions in the name of ‘liberty’, ‘individual rights’, or other liberal totems. This left-wing critique of liberalism dovetails with Fawcett’s own criticism of libertarianism as it has developed in Anglo-America in recent decades. Fawcett notes the development of libertarianism as an ideology distinct from liberalism itself. After World War II, left-liberals in Europe and the United States implemented welfare statist policies which represent the peak of social liberalism. However, the crises of the 1970’s coincided with the growth of a nascent libertarian movement which gave a philosophical foundation to anti-statist politics. The efforts of libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman to popularize their ideas through libertarian publications, think tanks, and political organizations has led to increasing popular embrace of libertarianism as a political philosophy. These thinkers and their supporters have attempted to identify liberalism, first and foremost, with liberty. Liberty could mean economic rights (protection of private property) or political rights (protection from tyrannical forces which might repress speech or political organization).


An example of this libertarian turn in the intellectual history of liberalism would be The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, written by George H Smith. Smith spent his career as a libertarian political philosopher at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, two think tanks largely funded by donations from billionaires like the Koch Brothers with a history of investment in libertarian causes. That the Koch brothers and other business interests would promote the spread of a libertarian interpretation of ‘classical liberalism’ comes as no surprise: in a 1978 issue of the Libertarian Review titled ‘Toward the Second American Revolution: Libertarian Strategies for Today’, Charles Koch wrote, “business must concentrate its support on those institutes and university departments that have effective programs for producing a libertarian cadre.” On this account, we can read the development and spread of libertarian beliefs as an ideological movement by the ruling class to perpetuate its rule and protect its wealth and power from redistributive and regulatory efforts by democratically elected legislatures.


Fawcett argues, instead, that “liberty is the wrong place to begin” in the study of liberalism, instead offering a view of liberalism wherein adherence to four aforementioned liberal claims grants one acceptance into the broad tent of liberalism. Fawcett is correct to emphasize liberalism’s basis in these republican, rather than libertarian, roots. In an interview, Fawcett identified a disturbing trend within the recent evolution of liberal discourse:

“It’s natural for left-liberals, or liberal leftists, like me to turn for our vocabulary to the republican tradition rather than the Lockean, Hayekian tradition, which has seized a number of important words for its own purposes.” Such a tradition has, for example, attempted to paint Adam Smith as an unrepentant advocate of laissez-faire economics. These accounts, however, are more likely to cite The Wealth of Nations than The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith critiques the “moral hazards of commercial societies.” This libertarian-inflected reading of Smith would neglect to mention that, as John Gray has noted, “many of the criticisms of capitalism that were later developed by Marx – notably those concerning its alienating and stupefying effects on workers – are prefigured in Smith’s thought.”

In his conclusion, Fawcett writes that liberalism “makes sense as a political practice, but becomes fragmented and hard to account for when taken for a doctrine in economics or a branch of moral philosophy.” (405) Such an account falls into line with Fawcett’s aforementioned statements about libertarianism. Libertarian political philosophy, though not entirely uniform, generally locates its foundation in a Lockean conception of property rights and bases its opposition to statism in Hayek’s critique of collectivism in the name of economic efficiency and protection of individual rights against totalitarianism. The inviolability of such rights leads libertarians to conclude that attempts by the state to tax private property are unjust, and that any redistributive policy must by necessity be an infringement on the right to private property.. This position gives libertarians a moral basis upon which they can launch their attack on the state; the economic policies which derive from this position are largely based upon the idea that the administration of social services by government is an infringement upon individual liberty. The embrace of such an ideology by the economically advantaged can be seen, from a Marxist perspective, as a classic example of ‘false consciousness’ in which one’s material interests are subverted by ideology. Schumpeter described such circumstances well when he wrote that the implementation of bourgeois policies and the liberation of the peasantry from the land throughout Europe “forced upon the peasant all the blessings of early liberalism – the free and unsheltered holding and all the individualist rope he needed in order to hang himself.”

Fawcett’s history of liberalism provides a counter-balance to the libertarian turn that has taken place in the Anglo-American world in recent decades. His attempt to return liberalism to its civic republican roots is echoed by other contemporary liberals like Mark Lilla, who argues in The Once and Future Liberal that identity politics has compromised liberalism and led to the rise of xenophobic right-wing populism. For Lilla, liberals must return to civic republicanism to help rebuild the sense of mutual obligation characteristic of earlier liberalisms, which can buttress liberal institutions from the threat posed by illiberal forces. Fawcett reaches similar conclusions in his own work. For Marxist critics, the left-liberalism of Fawcett and others can be read as reformist and counter-revolutionary in the sense outlined by Rosa Luxembourg over a century ago. For the politically minded, however, the civic republican liberalism of Fawcett might be the best vehicle for the achievement of egalitarian and democratic reform in the twenty-first century. His work is admirable in its exposition of this historical reading of liberalism, and Fawcett himself is deserving of praise for attempting to rescue liberalism, and its history, from the grips of extreme individualism.

9 October 2017


  • Losurdo, Domenico 2011 Liberalism: A Counter-History London: Verso
  • Mouffe, Chantal 2000 The Democratic Paradox London: Verso
  • Schumpeter, Joseph 2008 Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy London: HarperCollins
  • Smith, G.W 2002 Liberalism: Critical Concepts in Political Theory London: Routledge
  • Tucker, Robert 1978 The Marx-Engels Reader New York: Norton & Company

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