Duncan Bell. “What is Liberalism?” Political Theory 42(6), 682-715, 2014.
It is tempting to regard liberalism as a ‘sick signifier,’ a term that may now have polemical value in certain situations, but the meaning of which is so poorly determined as to make use counter-productive. A temptation, I think, worth resisting. Bell’s useful article attempts an answer to its titular question, although the author believes that his material “calls into question the general utility of “liberalism” as a category of political analysis” (705). Bell restricts his investigation mostly to the British, and (almost—more on that below) entirely to the Anglophone, political fields. He begins with the observation, drawing on David Scott, that today we are all “conscripts of liberalism,” meaning that “the scope of the [liberal] tradition has expanded to encompass the vast majority of political positions regarded as legitimate” (689). How to respond to this over-inflation of the concept?
Acknowledging that one’s definition of a concept (especially a political one) will depend on what one is trying to do, Bell writes, “I propose the following definition (for comprehensive purposes): the liberal tradition is constituted by the sum of the arguments that have been classified as liberal, and recognised as such by other self-proclaimed liberals, across time and space” (689-690). This technique accomplishes several things. It restricts us, first, to the 19th century. Second, it is a way of accounting at least partially for the polemical uses of the term. Third, it is important that history, in the sense of conceptual continuity and change, is built into this approach. Traditions can only be, as Bell writes, “constituted by the accumulation of arguments over time” (691). Bell has sensible things to say about the difficulties of adjudicating at the edges of this, as well as about the importance of differentiating between liberal speakers and liberal arguments.
The historical content of Bell’s argument—although the article is rich and many of its notes are ones I should follow up—is easily summed up. In the 19th century, liberalism was not among the most important of political terms. Together with socialism and conservatism, it was taken to be a product of the ‘era of revolutions’—the French especially—and to be broadly synonymous with democracy. So, Bell gives us James Fitzjames Stephen in 1862: “As generally used . . . “liberal” and “liberalism” . . . denote in politics, and to some extent in literature and philosophy, the party which wishes to alter existing institutions with the view of increasing popular power. In short, they are not greatly remote in meaning from the words “democracy” and “democratic.”” (694). John Locke appeared essentially nowhere in these discussions. Herbert Spencer, the enormously popular social scientist and surely a liberal, mentions Locke hardly at all.
Today, we are all sure that Locke is, perhaps not the very beginning of liberalism, but its defining thinker. Bell argues that “Locke became a liberal during the twentieth century” (698). Beginning at the end of the 19th century, but especially during the “crisis of liberalism” and its utter failure in the 1930s, scholars pushed the origins of liberalism back into the early modern period. Bell makes this “retrojection” the first chronological and discursive element constituting the new, hegemonic, idea of liberalism. The second and more important, beginning during the 1930s and accelerating through the war, was “the emergence and proliferation of the idea of “liberal democracy.” As representative forms of political order came under sustained fire, intellectuals propagated an all-encompassing narrative that simultaneously pushed the
historical origins of liberalism back in time while vastly expanding its spatial reach. For the first time, it was widely presented as either the most authentic ideological tradition of the West (a pre-1945 storyline) or its constitutive ideology (a view popular after 1945)” (699). In this new postwar dispensation, liberalism was “centered on individual freedom in the context of constitutional government” (699). And this was really a postwar understanding, one which Bell signals as defined by complex disciplinary histories in “the context of a transfer of scholarly authority from Britain to the United States” (701). “As a global conflict over the proper meaning of democracy raged, the modifier “liberal” simultaneously encompassed diverse representative parliamentary systems while differentiating them from others claiming the democratic title, above all Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union” (703). In short, Lockean liberalism, which is the historical story underpinning the combat concept of ‘liberal democracy,’ are Cold War anti-totalitarian relics still exerting unreasonable influence particularly in political theory departments.
Bell’s article is, as I’ve said, rich and valuable. I wish I’d read it some time ago. The story is not a surprising one for me, although I am not especially familiar with the British context on which he focuses. I’ve already cited his point that the transformation he describes is defined by a transfer of scholarly ‘weight’ from Britain to the US. He also mentions the importance of émigré scholars in building the history of ideas as a discipline in the US. (As an aside, I hadn’t realized that the Journal of the History of Ideas took CIA money), as well as the translation from Italian of Guido De Ruggiero’s fascist-era History of European Liberalism. Now, I have sympathy with the need to make linguistic and even national restrictions for practical reasons, and even for certain methodological ones. But it seems to m pretty clear—and of course Bell wouldn’t deny this—that the larger story here is a European or larger one.
This moves in two directions. The first is that, it seems to me, we would get very different responses depending on which national or linguistic tradition we started with. For instance in Germany, I think the postwar would find us looking not back to Locke, but perhaps back to Protestant theology of one kind or another. This would not be a liberalism of property, but one of personality (although equally anticommunist). In France we would see a very different sequence. We would not find the consolidation of ‘liberal democracy’ in the 1930s-50s. We would see a ‘liberal republicanism’ well before the First World War, which might look back to 1789, although also further back, and which would balance democratic claims with claims to fundamental individual rights (as in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) in a way not so different from ‘liberal democracy.’ The second is that, as I continue to think, the international sphere is more than the sum of its parts. (I would hate to have to say precisely how). All of this, moreover, leaves aside arguments about the essentially imperial origins of modern liberalism (for instance, at least as I understand it, in Andrew Sartori’s most recent book, which I haven’t yet read).