What Is Liberalism?

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2014, Vol. 42(6) 682 –715
© 2014 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/0090591714535103
What Is Liberalism?
Duncan Bell1
Liberalism is a term employed in a dizzying variety of ways in political thought
and social science. This essay challenges how the liberal tradition is typically
understood. I start by delineating different types of response—prescriptive,
comprehensive, explanatory—that are frequently conflated in answering
the question “what is liberalism?” I then discuss assorted methodological
strategies employed in the existing literature: after rejecting “stipulative”
and “canonical” approaches, I outline a contextualist alternative. Liberalism,
on this (comprehensive) account, is best characterised as the sum of the
arguments that have been classified as liberal, and recognised as such by other
self-proclaimed liberals, over time and space. In the remainder of the article,
I present an historical analysis of shifts in the meaning of liberalism in Anglo-
American political thought between 1850 and 1950, focusing in particular
on how Locke came to be characterised as a liberal. I argue that the scope
of the liberal traditionexpanded during the middle decades of the twentieth
century, such that it came to be seen by many as the constitutive ideology of
the West. This capacious (and deeply confusing) understanding of liberalism
was a product of the ideological wars fought against “totalitarianism” and
assorted developments in the social sciences. Today we both inherit and
inhabit it.
Liberalism, Locke, tradition, contextualism, ideology
1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Corresponding Author:
Duncan Bell, POLIS, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT, United
Email: dsab2@cam.ac.uk
535103PTXXXX10.1177/0090591714535103Political TheoryBell
Bell 683
Like the history of anything else, history of philosophy is written by the victors.
Victors get to choose their ancestors, in the sense that they decide which among
their all too various ancestors to mention, write biographies of, and commend
to their descendants.
(Richard Rorty)1
Before we can begin to analyse any specific form of liberalism we must surely
state as clearly as possible what the word means. For in the course of so many
years of ideological conflict it seems to have lost its identity completely.
Overuse and overextension have rendered it so amorphous that it can now
serve as an all-purpose word, whether of abuse or praise.
(Judith Shklar)2
Liberalism is a spectre that haunts Western political thought and practice. For
some it is a site of the modern, an object of desire, even the telos of history.
For others it represents an unfolding nightmare, signifying either the vicious
logic of capitalism or a squalid descent into moral relativism. For others still,
perhaps the majority, it is a mark of ambivalence, the ideological prerequisite
for living a reasonably comfortable life in affluent democratic states—the
least worst option.
But what is liberalism? Across and within scholarly discourses, it is con-
strued in manifold and contradictory ways: as an embattled vanguard project
and constitutive of modernity itself, a fine-grained normative political phi-
losophy and a hegemonic mode of governmentality, the justificatory ideology
of unrestrained capitalism and the richest ideological resource for its limita-
tion. Self-declared liberals have supported extensive welfare states and their
abolition; the imperial civilising mission and its passionate denunciation; the
necessity of social justice and its outright rejection; the perpetuation of the
sovereign state and its transcendence; massive global redistribution of wealth
and the radical inequalities of the existing order. Shklar’s complaint that it is
an “all-purpose word” is thus unsurprising, for liberalism has become the
metacategory of Western political discourse.
There are several responses to “overextension.” One is simply to ignore it,
deploying the term as if its meaning was self-evident. Ubiquitous across the
humanities and social sciences, this unreflective impulse generates much
confusion. Another is to engage in “boundary work”—to demarcate and
police the discourse.3 Some influential attempts to do so have figured liberal-
ism as a capacious tradition of traditions, with Guido De Ruggiero and
Friedrich Hayek, for example, bifurcating it into British and Continental
684 Political Theory 42(6)
forms. The most common variation on this theme is to distinguish “classical”
and “social” liberalisms.4 Another popular response is to narrate liberal his-
tory as a story of rise or decline, triumph or tragedy. A familiar rendition
bemoans the lost purity of the original. Thus Leo Strauss mourned the transi-
tion from virtuous “ancient” liberalism (reaching its apogee in Athens) to
debased forms of “modern” liberalism (commencing with Machiavelli),
while Sheldon Wolin averred that twentieth-century liberalism had disas-
trously forgotten its early sceptical enunciation.5 Some neoconservatives
have claimed the mantle, seeking, with Irving Kristol, “a return to the original
sources of liberal vision and liberal energy so as to correct the warped ver-
sion.”6 Declension has also been a recurrent libertarian complaint. When he
came to pen his defence of “classical” liberalism in 1927, Ludwig von Mises
grumbled that from Mill onwards the ideology had degenerated into social-
ism, a warning that Herbert Spencer had flagged half a century earlier.7 But
the development of liberalism can also be cast as progressive. Both L.T.
Hobhouse and John Dewey, for example, celebrated the transfiguration of
liberalism from an ideology of laissez faire to one that justified the use of
systematic government intervention to reduce harmful disadvantages.8 The
argument continues today with many libertarians condemning “social” liber-
alism as a form of socialism and many social liberals rejecting the liberal
credentials of libertarianism. All sides claim to be heirs of the one true
A related policing strategy is to concede the intellectual diversity of liber-
alism while extracting its constitutive element(s)—its ineliminable core. This
too is contested terrain. Adopting the most common line, Shklar sought to
create a “modest amount of order” by characterising liberalism as a “political
doctrine” with “only one overriding aim: to secure the political conditions
that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom.”9 Yet Jeremy Waldron
is rightthat positing a commitment to freedom as the foundation of liberalism
“is to say something too vague and abstract to be helpful.” Instead, he pro-
poses that it is best defined by a “requirement that all aspects of the social
should either be made acceptable or be capable of being made acceptable to
every last individual.”10 Ronald Dworkin, meanwhile, asserts that “a certain
conception of equality . . . is the nerve of liberalism.”11 Others insist on a
cluster of commitments. The historian Gary Gerstle, for example, suggests
that liberals have always endorsed three “foundational principles,” rational-
ity, emancipation, and progress, while John Dunn once lamented the “dis-
maying number of categories” that have been claimed as central to liberal
ideology, including political rationalism, hostility to autocracy, cultural dis-
taste for conservatism and tradition, tolerance, and individualism.12 Even its
supposed core has proven rather elusive.

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