On January 7, 2015, the French president François Hollande, speaking in the wake of the Islamist killings in his nation that day, said it was “the Republic as a whole that has been attacked.” Hollande claimed that “the assassins were targeting” not just a few individuals, but the Republic’s core values: free expression, creativity, pluralism, democracy. He vowed that France would defend these values by fighting “against terrorism and fundamentalism.”
Almost immediately, some on the left recoiled from such sentiments. The president had implied that there was a fundamental clash of civilizations, which the jihadists may well have hoped to foster—but why should critics of a rapacious capitalism fall in line with the Eurocentric version of that bloody project? After all, Hollande represented a regime that had instituted a kind of de facto apartheid, concentrating several generations of immigrants from Northern Africa, many of them young and unemployed, in suburban banlieues. “The Republic” was hardly an innocent in these events.
In France, one commentator remarked afterward that Hollande, although a member of the French Socialist Party, was in practice a “social-liberal,” a label meant to insinuate a feeble acquiescence in the inequities generated by unfettered market forces. Still other critics on the left went on to resurrect the familiar assertion that there exists an existential divide between liberalism and socialism. Among implicitly socialist academics, the existence of such a divide is sometimes signaled, without evidence or argument, by the sneering deployment of the term “neoliberalism,” as if this were the default—and perhaps only—form of liberalism on offer today.
Slavoj Žižek put the accusation this way: “So what about the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, etc.? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save them against the fundamentalist onslaught. Fundamentalism is a reaction—a false, mystifying reaction, of course—against a real flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself.” Why? Because it lacks any convictions whatsoever. Liberals in the West, Žižek declares, are like “the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures” and no match for radical Muslims with their fighting faith: “Those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”
Žižek’s remarks reminded me of an essay by the Anglo-American intellectual historian Larry Siedentop that ought to be better known. Entitled “Two Liberal Traditions” and published in a 1979 Festschrift for Isaiah Berlin, edited by Alan Ryan, the essay focuses mainly on the French tradition, which Siedentop helpfully distinguishes from the Anglo-American one. While the empiricists of the British liberal tradition elaborated a problematic kind of “possessive individualism,” French liberals like Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville, by contrast, were pioneering proto-sociologists who studied the beliefs and conduct of human beings in social settings (rather than, say, trying to view them as self-sufficient actors seeking practical advantages and protection from society, as Hobbes had done).