The Anatomy of Antiliberalism.

Author:Costello, Jeffrey R.

By Stephen Holmes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1993. Pp. xvi, 330. $29.95.

Stephen Holmes(1) has recently published an engaging and stimulating, though finally unsatisfying, book. At a time when modern liberalism is being assailed seemingly from all sides -- by fundamentalist Christians, conservative libertarians, critical race and feminist legal scholars, and communitarian political scholars -- Holmes endeavors in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism to defend the faith from attack by a discrete and somewhat nonobvious group of theorists. The book purports to weave the works of thinkers as diverse as Joseph de Maistre and Roberto Unger into a coherent tradition of "antiliberalism" and, in so doing, to correct the oft-repeated errors of both historiography and interpretation that run through this tradition.

That he is only partly successful in these aims reflects more on his taxonomic choices than his substantive analysis. The book is at the same time over- and underinclusive. First, it is not at all clear that Holmes has, in fact, identified a tradition of antiliberalism that is more substantial than the extremely broad definition of antiliberal he constructs to encompass the variety of views he highlights; hence the theory is overinclusive. Second, it is underinclusive in that even if the protofascism of Carl Schmitt and the communitarianism of Michael Sandel can be considered part of a unitary tradition -- without stripping such a tradition of normative weight -- Holmes has neglected to address adequately the salience that the communitarian critique, especially in legal contexts, has for liberalism.

Because he is writing about an opposition theory, Holmes begins with a thumbnail sketch of the liberal tradition. Somewhat disappointingly,(2) he defines liberalism as "a political theory and program that flourished from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century" and "continues to be a living tradition today" (p. 3). More specifically, he identifies the core practices of liberalism as religious toleration, freedom of expression, constraint on state action against the individual, broad franchise, constitutional government, and commitment to private property and freedom of contract (pp. 3-4). Four broad core norms in turn support these practices: personal security, impartiality, individual liberty, and democracy (p. 4).

Holmes then offers an overview of the tenets of non-Marxist antiliberalism.(3) Warning his readers that antiliberalism is "always a sensibility as well as an argument" (p. 5), Holmes sets forth the common attitudes he identifies in the antiliberal mind. Antiliberals decry atomization and the alienation implicit in rational self-interest (p. 6). They distrust science and technology and the Enlightenment usurpation of religious morality by secular humanism (p. 6). They are hostile to the culture of modernity and tend to conflate the theory of liberalism with the practice of liberal states (p. 6). Moreover, they are apocalyptic: society, at whatever time they write, is in a "crisis" that it can overcome only by eradicating the "virus" of liberalism (p. 7). Additionally, one might add that antiliberals systematically decontextualize liberal theory, thus positing as descriptive claims what are clearly normative aspirations.(4)

Holmes structures the book simply. Part I analyzes a series of representative antiliberal thinkers. Part 11 refutes the standard historical account of liberalism offered by these theorists and attempts thereby to deepen our understanding of the liberal tradition. Holmes makes an initial distinction in Part I between "hardline" and "softline" antiliberals (p. 88). He devotes the first portion of Part I to the former: Joseph de Maistre, Carl Schmitt, and Leo Strauss. The remaining bulk of Part I addresses the latter: Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, Roberto Unger, and the communitarianism associated with Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah. Apart from the substantive distinction between these two groups, the differentiation tracks historical chronology in an acknowledged way: hardline antiliberals all antedate the Nazi regime.(5) Holmes employs similar methods in dissecting each of his antiliberals: he points out their internal inconsistencies, their reliance on empirically untrue factual assertions, and their misreading of liberal theory. The method not only serves to keep the reader's attention focused on the similarities among the samples, but it reinforces the narrative structure Holmes imposes on his argument.

He begins his story with Joseph de Maistre, the counterrevolutionary Catholic philosopher of the late eighteenth century. Maistre, as Holmes portrays him, held a foundational view of man's essential bloodthirstiness.(6) Humans gathered together in society necessarily require an authority that is both final and absolute to prevent them from butchering each other. Maistre finds such authority in both a temporal and a spiritual incarnation: the monarch and the Church. Obedience to the absolute commands of these twin sovereigns provides the cement of community without which humans will descend ineluctably into depravity. Hence Maistre vociferously attacked the Enlightenment for replacing obedience with discussion, and he blamed the Reformation in particular for encouraging revolt against spiritual authority (p. 18). The direct result of this "horrifying project of extinguishing both Christianity and sovereignty in Europe" (p. 18) is the Terror (p. 15).


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