Liberalism – A brief history

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Glad to contribute on Brown-pundits

Thought I’d start with an essay I’d written some time back on the history of Liberalism –

I tweet @shrikanth_krish

Liberalism – A Short History

The rise of populist “right wing” movements around the world has caused many commentators to bemoan the decline of the “Liberal world order”.

Notably Lord Meghnad Desai, the British Labour Peer in the House of Lords, wrote in his 2017 book – “Politicshock” –

“Brexit and Trump mark the collapse of the liberal order worldwide, a phenomenon which saw its beginning with Modi’s rise in 2014”

But what was Meghnad talking about? What is this “liberal world order”? It is one of those nice sounding words of modernity that everyone wants to appropriate, but few offer a precise definition. It is a term which is so universally attractive and capacious that individuals who embrace it often range across the political spectrum.

What does it mean? What are its principles? What is its history? How has it evolved over time? What are its limitations? What is its prognosis in the 21st century? And why is it that many pundits are worried about its health all of a sudden in the past couple of years?

Let us first make an attempt to understand what it means. One of the reasons Liberalism is extremely hard to define is because of its immensely complex history and the internal contradictions that do exist among liberals on many fundamental political questions.

  • Does Liberalism stand for greater personal liberty? Or does it stand for an enlarged state and greater government control of private life?
  • Does Liberalism favor unbridled economic liberty? Or is economic liberty dispensable at the altar of equality – an equally cherished ideal in the history of liberalism?
  • Does Liberalism stand for strong nation states? Or for a globalist international order that discourages nationalistic tendencies?
  • Do Liberals believe in keeping the politics out of the life of individuals to the extent possible? Or do they now think that the “personal is the political” as claimed by second-wave feminists?

Liberals of different hues have answered these questions very differently in the course of the past thousand years. To understand the internal contradictions, it becomes important to survey the history of liberalism.

This piece is an attempt to examine the history of liberal ideas by anchoring the narrative around the questions posed above, by someone who is both a political conservative, and a sceptic of the liberal world order.

What does it mean?

The earliest uses of the word “liberal” corresponded to the word’s literal meaning in Latin where “liber” means “free”. The great Roman consul and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero in the first century BCE uses the term “liberal arts” in his book “De Inventione” to describe the education that one ought to confer to a “free” (liber) man, so that he can partake in public life in a meaningful way. This would include a study of disciplines like literature, rhetoric, mathematics, natural science among other things. A “liberal” education differed from mere vocational training as it transcended the need to equip a person to earn a living, as its recipients are “free” men who are gentleman of means.

One must note that the term “liberal” had no political import in the Roman Republic. Cicero used it in its literal sense – which meant “free”. However it was in England that the term “liber” took on a political dimension.

Magna Carta : Imposing limits to royal power

The year is 1215. The place is Runnymede, a water meadow near Windsor in southern England. Over a thousand years have elapsed since the halcyon days of the Roman Republic and the orations of Cicero in the Roman Senate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the supreme ecclesiastical official in the island of England, has drafted a charter to make peace between the unpopular King John and a group of rebel barons. It was signed by both parties at the said location.

The charter was in the Latin language and was titled – “Magna Carta Libertatum” – the Great Charter of the Liberties.

The Magna Carta remains a very critical event that has to feature in any history of liberalism. The term “liber” was now used very explicitly in a political treaty. Though the charter was ostensibly a peace agreement, it severely limited royal power, by including clauses that limited the king’s power of indiscriminate taxation, offered protection from illegal detention and imprisonment (a precursor to the modern habeas corpus writ), and also protected church rights. One of the most significant lines in Magna Carta featured the now much hackneyed expression “Law of the Land” (lex terrae in Latin)

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land

Now why is this significant in the history of liberalism? Because this was one of the earliest instances of power being vested in a “document” or a “charter” so to speak, in order to regulate the conduct of a monarch’s government. While it is easy to overstate the importance of Magna Carta, it cannot be denied that the treaty carried in it the germs of “constitutionalism” by sanctifying a secular document – a sharp contrast to the old world where the conduct of governments was regulated by the sheer power of precedent, tradition and religious ideas.

The modern liberal obsession with “constitutionalism” and glorification of written law as opposed to oral, less formal, traditions, can be said to germinate here. The document is also important on account of its protection of the private property (“freehold”) of the barons. Such an explicit protection is at variance with other societies where property was technically owned by the King, and taxation was limited by the sheer power of precedent and tradition and guidelines in law books. Ancient India is a fine example where tradition and precedent was supreme and very successful in limiting the king, thus precluding the need for explicit protection of private property as in the case in Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta continued to exert considerable influence on later English monarchs. While it was renewed several times, it lost some of its practical significance during the reign of the Tudor dynasts (1485 to 1603 CE) when the balance of power leaned towards the monarchy and England had a strong monarch.

However this interluding period of strong Tudor monarchy saw another development that was just as critical in the history of liberalism – it brought about the separation of church from state – which to this day remains one of the sacrosanct liberal principles agreed upon by liberals of all hues.

Henry VIII and his six wives : Separation of Church from State

Henry the VIII has gone down in history as one of the greatest Kings in English history. He ascended the throne in 1509 and remained the King till his death in 1547. While he has many claims to fame, he is best known today for his remarkable love life, which interestingly had tremendous implications for world history.

Henry’s first marriage was to the Spanish princess – Catherine of Aragon. Despite many attempts Catherine (six years older than Henry) could not produce a male heir that Henry badly wanted. Henry was desperate for a male heir and was also in love with Catherine’s maid of honor, Anne Boleyn. To marry Anne, Henry had to either divorce Catherine or annul his marriage. He parleyed hard with the Pope in Rome to get his marriage to Catherine annulled. But the Catholic Church, inarguably the greatest power center in Europe, did not relent. Marriage was a sacred inviolable commitment in the Catholic world view. Moreover Catherine’s nephew Charles V – the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire – was well connected with the church and there is a view that the Pope was under pressure from Catherine’s family not to assent to the annulment.

Henry lost his cool! The refusal of annulment triggered his rejection of papal supremacy. The Pope excommunicated him upon his decision to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. In 1534, Henry declared himself the “Supreme head of the Church of England”. England had officially broken her ties with the Catholic Church. To this day, the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church.

This was a very pivotal event in English and European history. It marked a clear break with religious authority, and the establishment of secular authority over the church. The supremacy of the state over the church, which is an article of faith almost with modern liberals, stems from this landmark event.

When liberals today talk up secularism as a cherished ideal, it is perhaps worth their while to remember that the ideal has its origins in the ignoble lust for a male heir of an amoral king.

But Henry VIII’s revolt against the Church was not an isolated act of revolt. It was merely a manifestation of a deeper ideological transformation in Western Europe – a transformation with very wide ranging implications for the future of the world. A transformation that privileged the sensual over the spiritual, and happiness over virtue.

This ideological shift is best understood by examining the work of two pivotal philosophers – Niccolo Machiavelli

and Thomas Hobbes – who may be called the godfathers of “modernity” with some justification.

Philosophy sans the soul: Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Soul has always been central to both theologians and philosophers in the pre-modern world, be it in Ancient Greece, Christian Rome, or Vedic India. The Bhagavad Gita deemed the soul to be indestructible. Socrates believed more or less the same! While Christian theology was more ambivalent than Greeks and Hindus on transmigration of souls, it nevertheless acknowledged its transcendence. The fourth century Christian theologian St Augustine looked askance at the human body and its gross desires and declared the soul to be “immortal” in his magnum opus – “The City of God”. Nine centuries later, the Italian Dominican friar St Thomas Aquinas in his “Summa Theologiae” claimed that the soul is “the first principle of life”, “it exists separately from the body” and is “immortal”.

But the 15th and 16th centuries saw the birth of two individuals who changed the course of philosophy. These two men were the first consequential “worldly philosophers” – individuals who focused on the material world and the affairs of men, and chose to discount the soul altogether.

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, born in 1469. Today he is best known for his short book “The Prince” and the term “Machiavellianism” – a term that is used to characterize lack of scruple in public life and politics. But Machiavelli was a lot more than a scheming practitioner and theorist of realpolitik. One may argue that he was a man who cut the umbilical cord between politics and moral philosophy. He was an empiricist and his writings were marked by a total neglect of the soul, and a focus on the material world. He eschewed political idealism in favor of realism and did not spend any time at all theorizing on virtue and what constitutes a “good life”. In his “History of Florence”, Machiavelli wrote –

And if your conduct were in every respect upright, your demeanor amiable, and your judgments equitable, all these would be insufficient to make you beloved. If you imagine otherwise, you deceive yourself; for, to one accustomed to the enjoyment of liberty, the slightest chains feel heavy, and every tie upon his free soul oppresses him”

The quote is striking as it does not view the “moral life” as an end in itself, but as an insufficient means to happiness. Happiness in turn is equated with the “enjoyment of liberty”. “Liberty” as opposed to virtue, now is positioned as the end of human endeavors. This was a radical change that marked Machiavelli out from all his great predecessors, both pagan and Christian.

But Machiavelli did not provide a self-sufficient and elegant theory to justify his world view. The theory to justify atheistic materialism came a century later in England. And the theorist was Thomas Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes was the son of a vicar, born in 1588 in Wiltshire, England. Like Machiavelli Hobbes discounted the soul completely. But he went a step ahead. He conceived of an amoral, indifferent, godless universe where there is no positive source of virtue or goodness. Instead, virtue, in his writings merely became an expediency to get along with others in the world.

Hobbes starts from first principles and imagines what life would be like without government – a condition which he calls the “state of nature. Here’s a famous extract from Chapter 13 of his masterpiece “Leviathan” –

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

So Hobbes is conjuring up a state prior to the emergence of societies and civilization. Every man is onto himself and is out to get the best deal with the motive of self-preservation. This naturally results in a barbaric state. So men voluntarily agree to curtail their rights, and get into contracts and rule by consent. So in the Hobbesian world view, man is by nature acquisitive and selfish. Virtue is not inherent to man, but is imbibed out of necessity to get by.

This was a revolutionary thought back in the 16th century and can be regarded justifiably as the birth of a new way of thinking – an amoral materialist world view.

The developments in philosophy eventually did have an impact on the real world – both on political theory and economic theory, which we discuss next

The rise of the Nation State : Liberal support for national identities

Henry VIII’s break-up with the Catholic Church was a significant event at two levels. We already discussed how it marked a major instance of the establishment of the superiority of the State over the Church. But it is also significant for a different reason. It is an early manifestation of a “nationalist” tendency that would engulf Europe over the next century and a half.

For much of human history, the “Empire” has been the most common form of territorial organization. Empires, be it the Roman Empire or the Han Empire or the Mauryan Empire, have been by their very nature, massive, cosmopolitan, and extremely heterogeneous. It is very hard for us to define the Roman Empire on an ethnic, lingual or religious basis. Because no such basis existed. The Roman Empire extended from the Pyrenees in France to Judea in the Middle East, from the desert sands of Northern Africa to the snowy Alps in Switzerland. The idea of a nation was unfashionable even as late as the 16th century.

But the thought revolutions in philosophy in the 16th and 17th century made a big difference. There now emerged ideas of “social contract” and “rule by consent”, propounded by the English liberals – Hobbes and Locke. There was also the example of England itself, an increasingly prosperous and mercantile country, that was, along with Netherlands, the envy of much of Europe during the 17th century.

The major fillip to the idea of “nationalism” came with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the conclusion of three decades of bloody religious conflict between the different kingdoms of Europe. The Westphalian system gave rise to the notion of “sovereignty” where every nation has the exclusive right to define its territory, and external powers should not interfere in the domestic affairs of another country. This new system was antagonistic to the older ideas of Empire, which were very much mainstream until the 17th century.

In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the old Holy Roman Empire broke up, and many independent monarchies emerged, each of which embodied a “nation” naturally held together by an ethnic or a lingual bond. Europe was no longer viewed as a monolith, but as a continent comprising of the French nation, the German nation, the Italian nation among others. This process of moving from the Empire model to the nation-state model was complete by the middle of the 19th century when the unification of Italy was completed.

All through this period, the contemporary liberal thought supported the idea of a strong nation state. Nation states were viewed as more likely to reflect the aspirations of its people, and work towards the best interests of its citizens, than remote, heterogeneous empires. The nostalgia for a new Rome that existed for much of the middle ages, faded away, and the liberal opinion strongly cast its vote in favor of Nation states

Votaries of Free Trade and Specialization: Hume, Smith and Ricardo

This was also a period of great debate in the new discipline of economics which took birth in the 17th and 18th centuries. Meditating on matters of wealth, trade and capital was not quite fashionable in the pre-Hobbesian world where the emphasis was more on the spiritual than the material. The rise of materialism changed the course of history. The finest thinkers were now much likelier than before, to think hard about the causes of wealth, and the balance of trade, and other matters.

David Hume (1711-1776) was a remarkable polymath, who can also be regarded as one of the earliest economists. He made a strong case for “free trade” in his text – “Of the Balance of Trade”. The key idea that he originated was that the economic pie is not fixed, and that trade can actually increase domestic production rather than depress it.

“It is very usual, in nations ignorant of the nature of commerce, to prohibit the exportation of commodities, and to preserve among themselves whatever they think valuable and useful. They do not consider, that, in this prohibition, they act directly contrary to their intention; and that the more is exported of any commodity, the more will be raised at home, of which they themselves will always have the first offer”

Adam Smith a few decades later wrote his magisterial “The Wealth of Nations” in which he took some of Hume’s ideas forward, and also propounded the theory of “division of labor” – which emphasized the virtues of specialization and its impact on economic output.

David Ricardo formalized the argument for free trade with his theory of comparative advantage, which made a compelling case for trade even for countries that may regard themselves as more productive than others in producing every good.

Democratic rage in 18th century: The radical revolutions in Europe and North America

However as the 18th century wore on there were developments in liberal political theory which eventually led to democratic revolutions in both Europe and the United States.

The Westphalian notion of independent nation states inevitably led liberal opinion to cogitate on how those nation states ought to function. There was an inevitable reaction against divine right monarchy, which was viewed as incapable of reflecting the will of the nation state’s citizenry. This gave rise to the idea of “separation of powers” and constitutional government, best reflected in the writings of the Frenchman Montesquieu (1689 – 1755).

Montesquieu articulated his theory of the “separation of powers” in his book “Spirit of the Laws” in 1748 –

IN every government there are three sorts of power: the legislative; the executive in respect to things dependent on the law of nations; and the executive in regard to matters that depend on the civil law.

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.”

These ideas, at least in part, inspired the more radical thinkers of the age, both in the United States and France. The revolutions in America and France were examples of radical liberalism put to “test”.  It was a period when liberalism was not satisfied with constitutionally limited government (which had already been achieved in England in 1688 as a result of the Glorious Revolution) but instead sought popular rule.

The rise of populism was also accompanied by the concomitant development of the great Industrial Revolution, which we discuss next.

Industrial Revolution and its Discontents : The rise of Marxism

The Industrial Revolution germinated in England towards the end of the 18th century. James Watt’s Steam Engine debuted in 1781. There was a gradual transition from manual methods of production to machines, and the rise of the factory system.

The Revolution had huge political implications. For the first time, the economic pie in society began to grow, and that meant the rise of jealosy and envy – manifesting itself in the rhetoric of “Equality”. Up till this point, Liberalism pursued “Liberty” as its ideal. But now it had another god to serve – “Equality”. Serving the twin gods of Liberty and Equality would prove to be Liberalism’s greatest challenge and its undoing.

The Industrial Revolution in England gave birth to Marxism – a theory of socio-economic analysis that was propounded by Karl Marx, a London-based German journalist. His was a theory that turned liberalism on its head, by shifting the focus from the “individual” to the “collective”.

The Great Depression: Liberalism turns paternalistic

For the next century or so, from mid-19th to mid-20th century, Liberalism changed in character

a) The shift in focus from the individual to the collective.

b) The increasing focus on achieving equality of condition in society

A key turning point was the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression that ensued. The Crash was viewed by economists and policy makers at the time as an indictment of the vagaries of the free market and capitalism.

The Great Depression can be viewed as the juncture when Liberal thought clearly turned “paternalistic” with the embrace of the populist “New Deal” reforms in the US under the Democratic dispensation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   It was a period when liberals took upon themselves to establish extensive social safety nets. Eg: Social security legislation in US.

Late 20th century Liberal Volte faces : Feminism and Internationalism

While the Liberalism of Magna Carta had started a process of greater liberalization of the individual, and removing “politics” from the lives of people, Liberalism v2.0 that emerged in the backdrop of the Industrial revolution took to paternalism and social justice.

Liberalism v2.0 was ironically focused on increasing the influence of politics on the lives of the people, the exact opposite of what the Magna Carta intended. The Industrial Revolution had caused Liberalism to do a volte face! The Faustian bargain of trading virtue for materialism (which began with Machiavelli) now had culminated in a maddening quest for one ideal – Equality of wealth and riches.

This manifested even in the social sphere.

The women’s movement had originally begun as a variant of Liberalism v1.0 – an attempt to empower women to pursue their individuality. John Stuart Mill, the great 19th century Liberal and author of classics such as “On Liberty” and “The Subjection of Women” was a fine advocate of this 19th century version of Feminism. But Liberalism v2.0 changed the character of feminism. Now the emphasis was less on liberty and more on equality. This meant a denial of gender roles, and a radical redefinition of the roles of men and women in society, that culminated in the Sexual revolution of the 60s.

Radical feminists of the late 60s / 70s now claimed that the “personal is the political” (the rallying slogan of second-wave feminism of the late 60s). A slogan that would have disconcerted the signatories of Magna Carta!

The other great Volte face of Liberalism in the period of late 20th century (post wars) was the rise of a concept called “Constitutional Patriotism” – a concept that emerged in post-WW2 Europe. Constitutional Patriotism deemed nationalism to be problematic – a huge volte-face as Nationalism was an outcome of “Liberal” thought back in 17th century, as we have discussed.

This new liberal doctrine demanded that nationalism be subordinate to constitutionalism – wherein the state does not demand “patriotism” but merely adherence to the constitution. Nationalism was now deemed to be an old fashioned emotional and troublesome feeling

“Internationalism” was the new liberal in-thing of 20th century, as evidenced by the rise of the United Nations, and European Union. Many modern liberals pride themselves on having transcended the passions of tribe, religion, language and ethnicity, and instead remaining cosmopolitans – citizens of the world

The Future of Liberalism: Serving the twin gods of liberty and equality

The wheel had turned a full circle! As we look to the rest of the 21st century, Liberalism has to survey its history and redefine its principles. What is most dear to it?

Liberty or Equality?

Democratic nationalism? Or internationalism?

Freedom of religion? Or hostility to religion?

An examination of the checkered history of the past 1000 years provides us with conflicting answers.

For the “liberal” ideal to remain relevant, it has to make up its mind on how it wishes to present its case to continue to be a force for “principled” change against the forces of “gradualism”, and “reaction”, epitomized by conservatives in every age.

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7 Replies to “Liberalism – A brief history”

  1. of “constitutionalism” by sanctifying a secular document – a sharp contrast to the old world where the conduct of governments was regulated by the sheer power of precedent, tradition and religious ideas.

    I think this bit completely misses the point about Magna Carta’s true significance! (Stands out in an otherwise fantastic piece)

    The conduct of (British) governments before Magna Carta was *not* driven by much precedent or tradition.

    What the Charter actually did was make tradition and precedent more (not less) possible in governance by abstracting /generalising the idea of law outside of kingship.

    Unlike many of the European polities of the time where nations were practically synonymous with kings – the nation with nearly all its secular institutions died with the king and every successor had to remake them from nearly scratch (with a lot of attendant bloodshed) – the Charter was the first written practical documentation of a institution that was meant to outlast kings. Thus making the institution of government more traditional!

    1. thanks for the comment!

      I agree with your observation. It is just that I used the word “tradition” in a different sense in that para.

      I meant to say that in most old world societies (excepting England) the constraint on the government stemmed from precedent and religion, as opposed to a formal written charter / document.

      But yes, the limits to royal power in England did ensure greater political continuity than in other parts of Europe

  2. Thanks Shrinkanth, that was great. Your four questions up the top about what liberalism means are good ones that people should pay more attention to. And so is your point about the twin gods of liberty and equality.

    I can quibble over emphasis or historical details — but that’s the strength of your piece! By laying out the grand history you’ve set out a structure for meaningful discussion.

    So within that structure here’s my bugaboo: you fail to not that Marx and the Marxists did not call themselves liberal and were (are!) in fact fanatically anti-liberal. Where things get interesting are the next step where *some* liberals took on Marxist ideas and tried to build a liberal-socialist synthesis.

    Modern democratic leftism is this synthesis. In most countries it’s called something like “social democracy”, but America has given it the confusing name “liberalism” — and the left is keen to spread that term globally. But whatever it’s *name*, it is in fact a roughly equal mix of traidtional liberalism and leftist anti-liberalism.

    Given than, you can’ be surprised that it contains paradoxes or contradictions. Especially given that traditional liberals who have no truck with Marxist ideas are also still around and as strong as ever.

  3. Is liberalism a concept of free thought – willingness to change status quo based on a rational methodology? Opposite of conservatism- reluctant to modify status quo?
    The full circle of liberalism is not surprising from this perspective (allowing for this pendulum) as it searches for this change in state- a sort of first differential wrt time.

  4. Liberalism was also a cheer leader for British colonialism till 1920s.in the 30s it changed track. In Britain politics that was also the period when it lost its mass appeal . Nowadays it is on the fringes electorally, while still a intellectual heavyweight

  5. You’ve misread hobbes and the link between Thomas Hobbes and John locke is tenuous they were liberal in the sense their philosophy was radical at the time and they were free thinkers but so were Rousseau Hegel and Marx

    .Locke may still today hold up as a liberal but hobbes argument for absolute sovereigns would today make him an authoritarian and far from liberal even if he is traditionally held up as one.

    Machiavelli again fits the description of liberal in that during his banishment he thought freely and unconventionally but much of his work is far from liberal..

    Liberalism is ill defined so my points are debatable and one is free to reject them. But even Lockes philosophy of tacit consent and the state simply acting as adjudicator over private property rights could be considered illiberal though that is not an argument I would make.

    Interesting essay but disjointed and very debatable. Not the fault of the author. Hes trying to do too much linkimg many different philosphies that did build on one another bit are radically different from each in a single post. A worthy goal but not achievable which is why in a poli sci 101 exam these authors are treated distinctly.

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