Histories of the idea of liberalism usually begin in the seventeenth century with the philosopher taken to be its patron saint, John Locke. In the aftermath of the wars of religion, the story goes, liberals waged a battle against the arbitrary powers of the church and absolutist monarchies. Philosophers began to promote the cardinal liberal virtues of toleration, private property and individualism. The Lockean vision of liberal society was one based on consent. Free individuals would accept a social contract in order to protect their natural rights to life, liberty and property. After centuries of struggle with less enlightened doctrines, this vision was institutionalized in the governments and constitutions of many Western (and now non-Western) societies. In this view, the United States is the country that embodies the liberal dream like no other.
This history is a recent invention. It is, in fact, largely a product of the Cold War. In the middle decades of the last century, British and American liberals—threatened first by socialism, then by totalitarianism in its various forms—gave liberalism a new legitimating canon. As courses in Western civilization were rolled out across American universities after World War II, Locke, private property and individual rights became central.
Before the 1930s, histories of liberalism told a different story. In his excellent Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the journalist Edmund Fawcett, a former correspondent for The Economist, returns to this earlier telling. For Fawcett, liberalism is, at its simplest, about “improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power.” To understand its history, “liberty is the wrong place to begin.” Liberalism wasn’t created in the seventeenth century but in the nineteenth, after a trio of revolutions—American, French and industrial—shattered the old order. Liberalism’s first job wasn’t simply to defend private individuals and limit the size of government, but to cope with the rise of capitalism and mass democracy amid the aftershocks of a postrevolutionary world. In Fawcett’s history, there’s nothing on Locke, little on toleration, and America isn’t seen as special. The focus instead is on social conflict, political economy and capitalism, and the story Fawcett tells clears away the distortions produced by Cold War histories of liberalism. It also reflects how our own preoccupations have changed since the crisis of 2008.
For Fawcett, liberalism “as a political practice” was born in the years after 1815. Early liberals believed a new society was emerging that would change politics for good. Political and economic revolution had created a new kind of person, “the individual,” with changed beliefs and interests, who would demand more from government and put up with less. Society was in conflict, rife with clashes between rival interest groups and between capital and labor. Fundamental to liberalism was the idea that such conflict could only be contained, never eliminated. That was the primary task of politics. Institutions were designed to prevent domination by any one group and to embed the liberal “habits of bargaining, persuasion and compromise.” The first liberals, like the French politicians Benjamin Constant and François Guizot, devised political schemes with these aims in mind. Political representation and the separation of powers were intended to check absolute power, restrain majority rule and free people to get on with their lives without having to worry about politics.