Saturday, August 13, 2016

French Liberalism, Historiography New and Old

In this month’s Modern Intellectual History is a review essay from Michael Behrent on the recent historiography of French liberalism. This is a service to the profession: describing, evaluating, condensing, and extrapolating from a substantial body of recent work. The historiography of French liberalism has often in the past generation looked in two directions. First, it argued against the idea of its own Sonderweg vis-à-vis English liberalism, supposedly the ideal-type. Second it had to grapple with liberalism’s relation to republicanism, which is of course an older and, especially in France, more significant political idiom. As for the first, it seems that even American historians are finally ready to stop regarding continental Europe as presenting various detours from the one true path hewn by the UK. As for the second, Behrent suggests that it is the very illiberalism of much of French political culture that makes French liberals in particular so interesting.

Rather than summarizing Behrent’s summaries, I want to extract the broader perspective taken, he argues, by this new historiography. The landmarks in the background here include François Furet, Lucien Jaume, and Pierre Rosanvallon. The works at issue include (but are not limited to) the Geenens and Rosenblatt edited volume, Aurelian Craiutu’s multivolume project on moderation, Helena Rosenblatt and Steven Vincent’s different approaches to Benjamin Constant, and Emmanuelle Paulet-Grandguillot on the legacies of Rousseau in Sismondi and Constant—indeed the central figure here is very much Constant, not, say, Tocqueville. Behrent writes that “these works endeavor not so much to return French political thought to some indefinable liberal fold as to show that understanding how liberals contended with the peculiarities of French history can enrich and broaden our understanding of liberalism—to see it not merely as a doctrine, but as an emotional and moral disposition, a form of political judgment, and a specific political style” (449). According to Behrent, this recent scholarship seeks “to probe some of the constitutive dilemmas of liberal thought from a historically informed perspective.”

In that spirit, he offers three broad questions. Let me take them out of order. Behrent’s final question: “can the history of French liberalism—and liberalism tout court—be approached as a history of emotions, sentiments, and passions?” (476). My own tendency here would be to reframe this question as one about the liberal subject (reading Gossman’s wonderful Basel book has pushed me to think more widely about this). This is a little like Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that at the heart of all political theories there is a theory of the human being, an anthropology. Asking after that leads in the direction of intellectual history rather than a sort of prosopo-psycho-biography of elites. But certainly the point, Constant’s point, that we are impassioned subjects but that we are nonetheless free is a relevant one that gets at some fundamental questions—are we free in our reason, or in our passion (Adolphe)? To whom would that distinction even make sense? Is that distinction, in fact, central to freedom as an idea in the modern world? Or only the European 19th century? Here is a historical question! 

Behrent’s first question concerns—following Bobbio’s famous analysis—the relationship between liberalism and democracy. These books “lend credence to the view that liberalism’s pedigree is largely independent of democracy’s—or, to the extent that they are related, liberalism must be seen as a reaction to the problems democracy raises” (473). Ultimately, with Spitz, Behrent wants to see in French liberalism an axiomatic democracy. Thus “liberalism has a democratic lining,” because without genuine democracy, individual freedom is empty. This is after all partly Constant’s argument in the famous essay on the liberty of the ancients and moderns—you must have both of these, even if you cannot expect or compel all moderns to be politically involved as all citizens were in the ancient world. But it is also—and here I would push back against Behrent’s characterization—especially in the French case very much about the Republic. Spitz, certainly, sees it in this way. Without the political action of the Republic, no liberalism. This is compatible with a much more negative view of liberalism than Behrent really allows into court, for instance Domenico Losurdo’s, in which cutting out a portion of the population as less-than-equal is essential to liberalism’s assertion of individual rights. Is talk of democracy supposed to preclude that reading? I don’t think it can. Behrent also points—this is the middle question—to the hoary opposition of of political to economic liberalisms. I have been convinced by J.T. Levy (and Marx!) that this is not a useful way of dividing the field, and it’s true that in France it is an especially muddy distinction. The economic, especially, was always on its face political (all the way back to Turgot’s ill-fated attempts at market liberalization).

Let me turn now to a venerable history of nineteenth century French political thought, one written by the British historian Roger Soltau (about whom I know very little, in fact). All proportion maintained, his view of French liberalism is an interesting contrast with the one in Behrent’s review essay. In his chapters on the end-of-century crisis of liberalism, he argues that, indeed, liberals ceased to defend any kind of meaningful “philosophy of freedom,” and hence had no real politics. They sank to defending bourgeois (not middle class) interests. This was indeed a relation of opposition, rather than necessity, between liberalism and democracy—the latter was certain to bring socialism, after all. So this was a problem, but there were also two areas of fundamental bad faith (not Soltau’s term) for French liberals—questions in which the bourgeoisie wasn’t even able to think clearly about its own interests. Soltau looks to one of the most unrepentant “economic” liberals of the age, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, to show how even the liberals were blinded by nationalism. In the name of national defense, the state had to be allowed anything. Similarly, beholden perhaps too much to the Republic, liberals were unwilling to challenge frankly illiberal anticlerical policies. As Soltau puts it, “If modern French Liberalism has proved so weak both before Jacobinism and is surely because its freedom of judgment was inhibited, as it were, on...the position of the Church in France and that of France in Europe” (304). The religious question at issue here isn't the same as it was for Constant--and the reflexive nationalism is also not the same as Jennifer Pitts' Turn to Empire (although neither is without relation). It is the freedom of judgment—the courage of thought—that he sees on the part of Charles Renouvier on both these issues that most impresses Soltau. Renouvier the neo-Kantian is, indeed, the only living representative of “the philosophy of freedom” that he sees in later 19th century France.

Why go back to a book written perhaps ninety years ago? (Other than, as in this case, almost pure serendipity?). For one thing because it seems to me that, although we may disagree about many of Soltau’s judgments, it would still be worth thinking about French liberalism and anticlericalism and nationalism—the places where, “its freedom of judgment was inhibited,” which are often telling. For another because, if we can see in Behrent’s analysis the pervasive influence of Furet, in Soltau we see (very much on the surface) that of Henry Michel, a historian of French political thought and a great advocate of Renouvier. And we can see Soltau working, as it were alongside another interwar historian of liberalism, Guido de Ruggiero (who looked to Croce's idealist liberalism). The latter, like Soltau, believed that, for complicated reasons, on a European level toward the end of the 19th century liberalism had ceased to be a genuine philosophy of freedom and had become merely the ideological cover of an increasingly unhappy bourgeoisie. This is no longer a popular opinion--why not? Both Soltau and Ruggiero were manifestly looking over their shoulders (Ruggiero literally) at fascists and “Bolshevists.” Historians of liberalism today ought to think hard about their—our—own investment in the object (whatever that object turns out to be).

1 comment:

Michael Behrent said...

Thank you, Eric, for these incredibly thoughtful reflections. Your comments on Soltau and the problems of turn-of-the-century bourgeois liberalism were particularly interesting and persuasive. I hope you're well!