Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles





The Life of an Idea


Edmund Fawcett


Princeton: University Press, 2014

Cloth. 468 p. ISBN 978-0691156897. $35.00


Reviewed by Jeff Bloodworth

Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)


Apparently, liberalism has been a very, very naughty boy. From Robin Williams’ suicide to the demise of participatory democracy, critics have made the creed responsible for any number of transgressions. Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky (Profits Over People. Seven Stories Press, 1999: 11) are scarcely the only definitionally confused among us. Defining a sophisticated doctrine that possesses multiple meanings across time and space is akin to nailing jelly to the wall.

Edmund Fawcett is an expert jelly affixer. Indeed, the veteran journalist is uniquely suited to the task. His three decades at the Economist, the Anglo world’s foremost periodical of liberal thought, have seeped him in that publication’s Caledonian (Scottish) philosophy. As the Economist’s chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, Fawcett has also absorbed and observed liberalism’s many variances. The sum product of his travels, experiences, and scholarly endeavors, Liberalism : The Life of an Idea, is a big and important work.

For some, liberals are simply those who “believe in liberty,” and its history amounts to a march of unmitigated progress or neoliberal disaster. Fawcett paints a more sophisticated story than this. To him, the creed emanates from twin eighteenth century quandaries: industrial capitalism and political revolutions. A world thrown into seeming permanent, dynamic disorder required an ethos fit for this new era. Alternately giddy and fearful, early liberals sought an ethical, political, economic, social, and international order free from inherited authorities and superstitious dogmas. 

A notoriously protean and slippery term, discerning liberalism’s genealogy is made all the more difficult by nomenclature. Ironically, throughout its history most liberals have called themselves anything but. Etymologically, Spanish liberals were the first to invoke the term. Used as a pejorative by post-Napoleonic conservatives, British Whigs later adopted the moniker, which has been used, abused, and misunderstood since.

This is a transnational story of becoming. Thus, Fawcett’s work chronicles the north Atlantic world’s major liberal intellectuals and politicians of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Recognizing that any long-lived, global creed surely lacks a pithy, concise definition, the author characterizes the liberal outlook as guided by four “loose ideas”:  an expectation of conflict, suspicion of power, belief in human progress, and an embrace of universal human rights [xiii].

As one of many isms born from a tumultuous era, liberalism encountered challengers that bring the creed into sharper focus. Conservatism and socialism, the doctrine’s primary nineteenth-century rivals, emerged in reaction to liberalism itself. Celebrating the supposed stability of the past, conservatives emphasized the necessity of a pre-capitalist, social order. Blaming liberal capitalism for unleashing forces that sowed “discord between classes” and “self-seeking disaffection,” conservatives emphasized duty, deference, and obedience as keys to social order [12].

Sharing the conservative distaste for liberal capitalism, socialists sought a post-capitalist society. Unlike liberals, socialists invested much faith in government power, so long as it was exercised in the name of the people. The two creeds shared a devotion to human progress, but diverged on issues of universal rights and the necessity of radical, as opposed to, gradual change. A chronicler and defender of liberalism, Fawcett is no uncritical Pollyanna. He gives liberalism’s critics, from Marx and Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt and Charles Maurras, their due. In turn, he also devotes significant attention to liberals par excellence: Gladstone, Lincoln, Orwell and Camus. As a proper history, he divides his chronicle into distinct eras: 1830-1880 is devoted to liberalism’s founders, 1880-1945 depicts the creed’s rise to maturity, and 1945-1989 is an account of the maxim’s post-war renaissance.

To Fawcett, liberalism is a nineteenth-century creature. Indeed, the coinage of the term, liberalism, serves as a telling marker of the dogma’s emergence. From there, the author neatly dispenses with a subject of intense debate: liberalism’s roots. Erudite and a wordsmith extraordinaire, the author breezily concludes, “Shake the great tree of pre-nineteenth century political thought. You get a rich basket of fruit, some of it ripe, some overripe. You do not get liberalism” [23]. Such lovely turns of phrase are nearly enough to convince. Fawcett’s summary dismissal of liberalism’s eighteenth-century origins would have greatly benefited from a concise discussion of liberalism’s antecedent: republicanism.

Though Fawcett omitted liberalism’s parentage, he expertly depicts its birth. Using Prussian diplomat, Wilhelm von Humboldt, as a human barometer, the author reveals the profound changes that gave birth to a liberal zeitgeist. The year of Humboldt’s birth, 1767, featured a remarkably rural and hyper-localized world marked by mass illiteracy, absolute monarchy, slavery, serfdom & indentured servitude. In 1835, the year of Humboldt’s death, Karl Marx entered university, Charles Darwin voyaged to the Galapagos, and Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped onto the lecture circuit. In this nifty way, the author shows that in the span of Humboldt’s life, a new (liberal) world had materialized.

To contemporary conservatives, liberalism caused the very revolutions in commerce, inquiry, and progress they hold dear. By way of contrast, Fawcett sees cause and effect in an opposite fashion; liberalism was the effect, not a cause. To him, trade, scientific innovation, population growth, rising literacy rates, and geographic mobility had combined to unseat “Established ethical authorities and accepted models of conduct” [30]. From this milieu a novel, yet elusive character, “the individual,” emerged [41].

From Humboldt and Tocqueville to Mill, early liberal thinkers sought to safeguard the “individual.” To them, this new creature was destined to fashion a new kind of society. These early theorists coalesced pre-existing ideas into a coherent philosophy. This liberalism was hardly born fully formed and without stain. Armed with a Whig sense of history, nineteenth-century liberals were also profoundly undemocratic. Added to that were additional wrong turns. Herbert Spencer created “seductive metaphors” that equated liberal society with laws of natural science; these ideas were eventually applied in nefarious ways [79]. Despite these miscues, thinkers slowly developed a set of lucid, liberal ideas. No thinker, in Fawcett’s view, did more in this regard than John Stuart Mill.

Of big spirit and broad thought, Mill wrote and commented widely. The very voluminous nature of his work has led liberals of the left and right to claim him as their own. To the author, Mill both exemplified liberalism’s maturation and enabled its proliferation through his “many-sided or candid a statement of the conflicting pressures in the liberal creed” [85]. Mill plays a significant role in Fawcett’s story, but this book is no history of liberal philosophy. Instead, Fawcett is most interested in lived liberalism. Thus, he devotes extensive space to politicians. In this, he reveals his story’s central thrust: “Liberalism was more than the narrowly economic creed of a rising bourgeoisie” [134]. Instead, nineteenth-century liberals created a doctrine defined by, “an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power” [134].

Scarcely devoted to profit alone, nineteenth-century liberals sought a peaceful world founded upon human reasonableness, international trade, scientific progress, and universal education. In the late nineteenth century, they generally rejected universal suffrage and the welfare state. In this way, the liberal impulse remained profoundly undemocratic. They feared the unlettered and untutored would drive government into the hands of the “most ignorant” and a frightened middle class would opt for “despotic order” [152].

Despite liberal misgivings, the masses received the franchise. A funny thing, however, happened on the way to modernity; opposition parties, adept at mass politics, slowly adopted liberal ideas. In sum, Fawcett discerns, “As liberalism conceded to democracy, democracy conceded to liberalism” [158]. Furthermore, in yielding to universal suffrage liberals won far more than they lost. Slowly, the modern right and left embraced a liberal precept that politics was no longer a “contest for total control” [159]. Instead, interest group politics surfaced—and liberal democracy was born.

As the franchise expanded, mass political parties pushed for a solution to, what Fawcett terms, “the House of the Have and the House of Want.” In the face of democratic politicking and massive economic inequalities, a “new liberalism” dedicated to ameliorating the excesses of industrial capitalism materialized. Simultaneous to the new liberalism, business liberals also coalesced. Though Fawcett detests the very notion of “many liberalisms,” as opposed to one coherent, yet contested “Liberalism,” his story expertly details the ideology’s many strands and threads.

The “House of the Have and the House Want” revealed gaping economic inequalities that produced class conflict—and a relatively common liberal solution. Though France, Germany, Britain and the US possessed different nomenclatures all created a new liberalism that used the state to tame the market. Business liberals might have denounced them as non-liberals, but, to Fawcett, the new liberals maintained the faith. Differentiating negative liberty, resisting absolute power and privilege, from positive liberty, empowering people, new liberals argued that fresh challenges necessitated a change in tactics. To Fawcett, the new liberalism’s “deeper achievement” lay in its rejection of “polar thinking” [197].

This intellectual triumph lay in stark contrast to the foreign policy disasters that stretched from 1880-1945. Liberal imperialism, for one, revealed a profound moral and ethical naïveté in the infant ideology. The imperial project might have brought modern schools, medicine, trade, science, and law to the Global South, but it nevertheless represented, “despotism with theft as the final object” [198]. That foreign policy cul-de-sac pales in comparison to the boneheaded dead-end that was the Great War. After all, as Fawcett reveals, leading liberals, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson, waged the war. Moreover, the war was made all the more hellish by new liberalism’s strong states and the productive capacities engendered by liberal capitalism. In sum, the Great War was, in its frightening destructiveness, a liberal war.

World War I combined with the Great Depression fundamentally undermined liberals’ faith in the inevitability of progress. Furthermore, the economic calamity created intellectual space for new competitors: fascism & bolshevism. During the Second World War they battled the fascists; in the post-1945 era, liberals confronted the bolsheviks. In between the depression’s onset and war, liberals desperately sought avenues to maintain the liberal faith even as they constrained capitalism’s “disruptive instabilities” [248]. John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, in Fawcett’s view, shared this goal even as they diverged on tactics. Their later proponents have obscured this common liberal thread. Indeed, to the author, their twentieth-century disagreements were rooted in nineteenth-century liberalism’s compromise with democracy. Hayek yearned to return to “an idealized nineteenth-century faith” [266]. Meanwhile, Keynes built upon the new liberalism.

Fawcett views Herbert Hoover and FDR in much the same way that he interprets the Keynes/Hayek rivalry, a competition between two liberals. Thus, the ideological contests of yesterday (and today) might be nasty but they are a family affair within the liberal family and about liberal ideals. The contest to counteract liberalism’s nadir, the depression, Holocaust, and Second World War, ironically represented the dawn of the creed’s finest hour. With liberalism’s calamitous mistakes in mind and the Soviet Union as a rival system, Western liberals cooperated to build a “shared international practice of politics” [287]. Consequently, the postwar world was one in which the liberal idea went global and reached its fullest flower.

Similar to the nineteenth century, post-1945 liberal thinkers and essayists continued to fit their dogma for new circumstances. Indeed, the early postwar liberals took the anti-totalitarian mantle. For Walter Lippmann, and others, they feared that collectivists had seized the torch of progress. Fawcett is at his best when detailing the works of anti-totalitarians Camus and Orwell. Moreover, he understandably shifts his focus from Europe and toward America as the center of the liberal world. 

With the US in the lead, and buttressed by a generation determined to fix the mistakes of the past, liberals brokered an accord on both sides of the Atlantic. This settlement broke down in the 1970s—but, to Fawcett, postwar liberals had created a world that came closest to their original dream, “a masterless world among contented people” [393].

Though this might sound triumphalist, Fawcett is anything but. Liberalism is a work dedicated to identifying the creed, so that adherents may shepherd it through what the author sees as a transition period. Warning against repeating the mistakes of the early twentieth century, he calls for liberals to navigate between the poles of “smugness and alarm” [394]. This warning serves as a pithy summation of his work. To Fawcett, liberals have constantly bounced between these extremities. Arming liberals with a history, the author hopes to equip them for the rocky shoals of the twenty-first century world.

Like jelly on a wall, liberalism is not a static object easily hemmed in or framed as an inert object or work of art. Fawcett expertly reveals the creed’s evolution, dead-ends, and permutations. A sprawling yarn that somehow remains utterly coherent and on-point, this is history at its very best.


Cercles © 2014

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.