Varieties of Liberalism

Varieties of Liberalism January 12, 2018

Paul Gottfried (After Liberalism) points out that liberalism doesn’t mean one thing.

It “has not been allowed to keep any fixed and specific meaning. It has signified dramatically different and even opposed things at different times and places in the course of this century, from a defense of free-market economics and of government based on distributed powers to a justification of exactly the opposite positions. Self-described liberals in the Western world during the last seventy-five years have been nationalists, internationalists, socialists, libertarians, localists, bureaucratic centralizers, upholders of Christian morality, and advocates of alternative lifestyles. They have treated these identities not as random individual choices but as true expressions of their liberal convictions.”

In part, the confusion arises because “liberal” has “now assumed a polemical sense, with the result that its antithesis ‘antiliberal’ has come to overshadow any positive definition it may have had. Particularly during the Second World War and its cultural aftermath, a practice came to prevail among journalists and academicians to brand their opponents as antiliberal” (3).

Opposition to any part of what is specified as “liberalism” is taken as a sign of fascism: “Such argumenta ad Hitlerum have characterized the charge of antiliberalism brandished by liberal advocates since the forties. Invariably this line of attack relies on some form of the slippery slope, by which any serious assault on liberal social planning is condemned as a plunge into the rightist past” (4).

Contemporary liberals rarely acknowledge this variety of definition. They attempt to show that their radically egalitarian position has a long patrimony. But they have a hard time finding it: “Without an authentic and cohesive heritage, these liberals turn to a contrived one that, we are told, is the real essence of liberalism. We are bidden to focus our attention on this essence or spirit to make sense of an otherwise disjointed patrimony” (7). Anyone who deviates from the current consensus of liberalism, even self-professed liberal, runs the risk of being rejected for “antiliberal” views.

The confusion is at least several decades old: “In America the semantic waters already ran muddy during the interwar years. This can be gathered from looking at those interwar socialists and social democrats who claimed for themselves a liberal pedigree. These efforts at appropriation succeeded, thanks to an obliging professoriate and eventually sympathetic press, but they also called into question whether liberalism forms an ‘unbroken tradition’” (9).

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