Liberalism


Liberalism
   Liberalism was the hegemonic ideology of the Anglo-Saxon powers during the nineteenth century. Although not uncontested, it was the ideology that was able to establish the terms in which other contemporary ideologies - from John Calhoun’s pseudo-feudalism and Benjamin Disraeli ’s romantic Toryism to the socialisms of Marxists and also of the Fabians - had to define themselves. The term liberalism was used most obviously to name the ideology of the Liberal Party, although that party did not exist until the middle of the century. On the European continent, liberalism was generally understood to be the philosophy of constitutional government, although by such a standard, everyone in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon world was a liberal.
   The term liberal , borrowed from the Spanish, originally had a connotation of enlightenment, and entered political language with the liberal Tories of the 1820s. The term liberal conservative was often applied to the free trading followers of Sir Robert Peel, who formed the core of the mid-Victorian Liberal Party. Although it is impossible to define liberalism with reference to some dogmatic premise to which all liberals must assent, a number of core characteristics can be identified. Perhaps the most obvious is constitutionalism and a related concern for liberty. The autonomy of the individual has always been valued by liberals, as the central place of that value in John Stuart Mill ’ s On Liberty made clear. Liberalism is also a rationalist ideology: it believes that reason can understand and improve the world, and consequently liberals often characterized themselves as the party of enlightenment as against the obscurantism imputed to their opponents. In common with their Whig predecessors, liberalism sees history as an essentially progressive process; the Whig view of constitutional development was thus congenial to liberals. Liberalism was usually an anticoercive ideology, generally, although not always, opposed to the use of force in politics, although this did not prohibit force where reason was believed to have failed, and few liberals became full-fledged pacifists.
   Liberalism emphasized freedom of contract and the importance of voluntary cooperation and was normally hostile to assertive state action. As such, free market economics has often been thought - most notably by marxists - the centerpiece of liberalism, the ostensible ideology of the bourgeoisie. Free trade was certainly the centerpiece of British liberalism. Nevertheless, free trade commanded only minority support in the United States, neither of whose major parties thought to call itself liberal, and free trade never attained the hegemonic status it had in Britain in the settlement colonies. Three prominent strains of liberal thought can be identified: (1) the Lockean, or contractual, which emphasized the importance of free, uncoercive individual choice, and which led to doctrines of right or liberties; (2) the Benthamite, or utilitarian, strand of liberalism, associated with Jeremy Bentham ’s influential successors the philosophical radicals, which emphasized the importance of rational human happiness and presented powerful arguments against preexisting social orders, but for which liberty was only an instrumental good; and (3) an eminent tradition of political economy that went back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and that emphasized the importance of individual choice in (usually) free markets, informed liberalism. There were latent contradictions between the first two strands of liberalism, although neither thought itself incompatible with classical political economy.
   The relation of liberalism to imperialism was ambiguous. On the one hand, liberalism presented powerful arguments for colonial self-government. On the other, some liberals contested the suitability for self-government of what they saw as irrational or inferior peoples or cultures. Most ideological liberals were anti-imperialists, and anti-imperialism was strongest on the radical, which is to say radically liberal, wing of the Liberal Party. There was a strong tradition of liberal anticolonialism, going back to Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. It was nevertheless possible to argue on liberal grounds that the expansion of the liberal and free trading British empire was preferable to that of other, illiberal and protectionist empires, and there was a powerful group of liberal imperialists around the turn of the century, including once and future prime ministers such as Lord Rosebery and H. H. Asquith.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press, 1969;
    Hirschmann, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977;
    Howard, Michael. War and the Liberal Conscience. London: Temple Smith, 1978;
    Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Edited by David Spitz. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975;
    Read, Donald. Cobden and Bright: A Victorian Political Partnership. London: Edward Arnold, 1967;
    Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 2 vols. Edited by W. B. Todd. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1976.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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