How Liberalism Was Launched

In a review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Katrina Forrester takes stock of his revisionist account of how the approach to politics began:

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.”