Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-jb2ch Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-25T16:41:43.765Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Agonies of Liberalism

Review products

EdmundFawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 468 pp. (hb), $35, ISBN 978-0-691-15689-7.

HagenSchulz-Forberg and NiklasOlsen, eds., Re-Inventing Western Civilisation: Transnational Reconstructions of Liberalism in Europe in the Twentieth Century (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 244 pp. (hb), £47.99, ISBN 978-1-4438-6049-9.

RafGeenens and HelenaRosenblatt, eds., French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 318 pp. (hb), £64.99, ISBN 978-1-1070-1743-6.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 September 2016

School of History, Classics and Archaeology, William Robertson Wing, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG;


It is striking the extent to which many liberals have seen themselves as figures on the margins of politics. This is partly an ideological issue. Of all the great ‘isms’ of the modern age, liberalism has had neither the historical certainty of the two great totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, nor the reassuring hierarchical logic of conservatism. Most liberals have agonised about how much humans can achieve and have repeatedly stressed the fallibility of rational or democratic solutions, at least in comparison with more revolutionary ideologies like communism. But liberals’ sense of living on the margins is also a consequence of the context in which liberalism was born. In Europe, the spectre of the French Revolution – and, later, the Bolshevik Revolution – gave liberalism a specific flavour. Liberals were often keen on reform, but they always feared social upheaval. Time and again, liberals found themselves in power only to lose control of the pace of social change. In the worst cases – 1815, 1848 or 1917 spring to mind – this put the liberal cause back by generations. For much of modern European history, to be a liberal was to be in a perpetual state of siege.

Review Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 On the umbilical relationship between financial capitalism and neoliberalism, see for instance Duménil, Gérard and Lévy, Dominique, The Crisis of Neoliberalism (London: Harvard University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 On this, see for example Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (London: Princeton University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

3 This triumphalism is best exemplified by the now famous Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

4 France is a good example of this, as I will discuss later.

5 This is in sharp contrast to recent powerful indictments of liberalism such as Losurdo, Domenico, Liberalism: A Counter-History (London: Verso, 2014)Google Scholar.

6 Freeden, Michael, Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (London: Oxford University Press, 2015)Google Scholar is the most recent attempt to grapple with these definitional issues in a succinct way. In his words, liberalism is an ideology that is ‘a rallying cry for individuals desiring space to be free from unjustifiable limitations’, ‘a set of fundamental institutional arrangements meant to legitimate and civilize the practices of politics’ and ‘ideas and policies intended to reform, to emancipate, and to open up possibilities for individuals wishing to live their lives according to their own understandings’ (2).

7 He makes this argument in Fawcett, Edmund, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 160 Google Scholar. There is now a vibrant discussion about the relationship between republicanism and liberalism in post-revolutionary French history. Varied approaches to this issue include Hazareesingh, Sudhir, Political Traditions in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Jainchill, Andrew, Reimagining Politics After the Terror: The Republican Origins of French Liberalism (London: Cornell University Press, 2008)Google Scholar and Chabal, Emile, A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Fawcett, Liberalism, 26.

9 Siedentop, Larry, ‘Two liberal traditions’ and Lucien Jaume, ‘The unity, diversity and paradoxes of French liberalism’ in Geenens, Raf and Rosenblatt, Helena, eds., French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

10 Siedentop's piece was originally published in Ryan, Alan, ed., The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)Google Scholar.

11 On the French liberal revival, see for example Lilla, Mark, ed., New French Thought: Political Philosophy (London: Princeton University Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jainchill, Andrew and Moyn, Samuel, ‘French Democracy Between Totalitarianism and Solidarity: Pierre Rosanvallon and Revisionist Historiography’, The Journal of Modern History, 76 (2004), 107–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Chabal, A Divided Republic, esp. ch. 6–7.

12 Plehwe, Dieter and Walther, Katja, ‘In the Shadows of Hayek and Firedman: Quantitative Analysis as an Exploratory Instrument in Socio-Historic Network Research’, in Schulz-Forberg, Hagen and Olsen, Niklas, eds., Re-Inventing Western Civilisation: Transnational Reconstructions of Liberalism in Europe in the Twentieth Century (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014)Google Scholar.

13 Ben Jackson, ‘The Think-Tank Archipelago: Thatcherism and Neoliberalism’ in Schulz-Forberg and Olsen, Re-Inventing Western Civilisation.

14 For an interesting perspective on power and its dissemination, see Priestland, David, Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (London: Penguin, 2013)Google Scholar.

15 Ideas of liberal moderation have been most thoroughly historicised in Craiutu, Aurelian, A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748–1830 (London: Princeton University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Aschheim, Steven E., At the Edges of Liberalism: Junctions of European, German and Jewish History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 23–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Hobsbawm, Eric, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Penguin, 2002), esp. ch. 2Google Scholar.

18 This narrative of interwar political collapse and the failure of both liberalism and democracy is at the heart of Mazower, Mark, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 1999)Google Scholar.

19 Siedentop, ‘Two Liberal Traditions’ and Jean-Fabien Spitz, ‘The “illiberalism” of French liberalism: the individual and the state in the thought of Blanc, Dupont White and Durkheim’, in Geenens and Rosenblatt, French Liberalism.

20 Aurelian Craiutu, ‘Raymond Aron and the tradition of political moderation in France’, in Geenens and Rosenblatt, French Liberalism.

21 On Furet (and Tocqueville's) use of the idea of political ‘passion’, see Prochasson, Christophe, ‘The Melancholy of Post-Communism: François Furet and the “Passions”’, in Chabal, Emile, ed., France since the 1970s: History, Politics and Memory in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)Google Scholar.

22 Accounts of the rise of neoliberalism include Steger, Manfred B. and Roy, Ravi K., Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

23 Some of the best close-grained, empirical work has been done by Serge Audier and Michael Behrent. See for instance Audier, Serge, Néolibéralismes: une archéologie intellectuelle (Paris: Grasset, 2012)Google Scholar; idem, Penser le ‘néolibéralisme’. Le moment néolibéral, Foucault et la crise du socialisme (Paris: Le Bord de l'Eau, 2015); Behrent, Michael C., ‘Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the Free-Market Creed, 1976–1979’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), 539–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Michael C. Behrent, ‘Justifying Capitalism in an Age of Uncertainty: L'Association pour la Liberté Économique et le Progrès Social, 1969–1973’, in Chabal, France since the 1970s.

24 Niklas Olsen, ‘A Second-Hand Dealer in Ideas: Christian Gandil and Scandinavian Configurations of European Neolibealism, 1945–1970’, in Schulz-Forberg and Olsen, Re-inventing Western Civilisation.

25 This narrative is often heard amongst members of anti-globalisation and far-left movements. It can also be found in books such as Dardot, Pierre and Laval, Christian, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (London: Verso, 2014)Google Scholar. The expression ‘new spirit of capitalism’ is taken from Boltanski, Christian and Chiapello, Ève, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007)Google Scholar, although Boltanski and Chiapello focus more on capitalism than neoliberalism in their study.

26 One of the few historians to take these changes seriously is Daniel T. Rodgers, whose pioneering book offers an excellent template for how the intellectual history of the contemporary period can be written. Rodgers, Daniel T., Age of Fracture (London: Harvard University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

27 Fawcett, Liberalism, 383.

28 Samuel Moyn, ‘The politics of individual rights: Marcel Gauchet and Claude Lefort’, in Geenens and Rosenblatt, French Liberalism.

29 Moyn himself has done this for ‘human rights’ in Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (London: Harvard University Press, 2012)Google Scholar. His argument is that the rise of ‘human rights’ is inextricably linked to the ideological transformations of the 1970s.

30 This has been a common refrain in post-1968 French writing about the student protests of the late 1960s. Perhaps the most famous example of this narrative is Debray, Régis, Modeste contribution aux discours et cérémonies officielles du dixième anniversaire (Paris: Maspéro, 1978)Google Scholar, but there are echoes of it in Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism.

31 European and North American historians still do not have a good grasp over the non-Western varieties of contemporary neoliberalism, but they have begun to investigate earlier forms of non-Western liberalism. See for example Bayly, Christopher, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in an Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 I develop this idea in Chabal, Emile, ‘Capitalism and its Critics: Antiliberalism in Contemporary French Politics’ in Stewart, Iain and Sawyer, Stephen, eds., In Search of the Liberal Moment: Democracy, Anti-Totalitarianism, and Intellectual Politics in France since 1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016)Google Scholar.