Book Review: Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2018).

This book is more than a coherent and straightforward synthetic history of liberalism. First, let me note that the book is impressive in its scope of covering hundreds of years and multiple countries, although limited primarily to Western Europe and the United States. It also brings together a large historiography about liberalism and has a very good bibliography. But crucially, this book should be recognized for intending to contribute a substantial historiographical shift. Rosenblatt writes that liberalism’s defenders have come to treat liberalism as an ideology of individual rights and interests. But the origins of liberalism, Rosenblatt argues in the book, are to be found in France, where liberal thinkers were defined by other concerns like equality, morality, and civic virtue.

rosenblatt.pngBy turning away from a focus on the Anglo-American liberal tradition, Rosenblatt accomplishes a great deal in reviving the history of liberalism in France and Germany especially. Her focus on liberalism’s concern with morality, and her study of the importance of civic virtues in 18th and 19th century liberalism seems appropriate. It is especially welcome to see the author focus on liberalism in Germany, where the liberal tradition is often underestimated. It was Germany, after all, where liberal theology came into being, and where liberal political economy reigned.  (p. 155).

But one wonders if Rosenblatt, in focusing on liberalism’s continental origins, works too hard to discount Anglo-American liberalism. It appears, for example, that Rosenblatt wants to push Adam Smith, John Locke, and especially Thomas Hobbes out of the liberal tradition. It is unclear in this narrative if Thomas Jefferson is a liberal, but if he is not, then certainly there needs to be an explanation why. Diminishing, expelling, or problematizing the liberalism of characters in the Anglo-American tradition strengthens Rosenblatt’s argument that liberalism, properly understood, was a first and foremost a French development, and that laissez-faire and individual rights libertarianism are mostly a later 20th century development, not a part of the core liberal tradition. At the same time, Rosenblatt complains that modern libertarians have read back to Adam Smith and John Locke to claim them for their own, when such thinkers were not advocates of extreme libertarian positions. Rosenblatt uses the term libertarian sparingly, and instead speaks of individual rights and free trade. To describe these traditions, she uses the terms  “selfish” and “atomistic” (p. 4)  which are certainly not neutral descriptors that defenders of those traditions would use. Likewise, the term “unfettered” (used on page 229 to describe laissez-faire) is most frequently used as a derisive adjective, not a neutral description. So, while the book seems to be a fair, general overview of liberalism, it is most definitely not an a-political or non-ideological interpretation.

In an interview in the Boston Review, Rosenblatt is quoted as having said “pick a different theory of Liberalism, and you get a different view of its past.” But she does not argue in the book that, depending on one’s starting point, there are multiple possible and equally valid interpretations of the history of liberalism. Rather, by defending one particular view of the history of liberalism, it is as if she is saying there is only one correct theory or definition of liberalism. I don’t mean to belabor this point, but it seems to be an important one. If Rosenblatt did not believe in a single theory of Liberalism – some conception of what true Liberalism is  – she would not be able to write the history of Liberalism as only one possible story, but only as one interpretation among many.

Rosenblatt owes an influence to conceptual history. She claims as much in her introduction, and includes a page on “method” – heavily indebted to conceptual history –  in the bibliography.  Conceptual history, as I understand it, has as much to do with ideas and with the hermeneutics – understanding the context of words – as in tracing the evolution of words.  But the book progresses, it seems to me, in a fashion very much the opposite of conceptual history. It is, as Rosenblatt states, a “word history” a history of the word “liberalism.”  Long ago (and I mean the first half of the 20th century) historians of ideas frequently traced the genealogies of thoughts, and while they cared about the actual words that were used to define these thoughts, they were more interested in ideas than words. The history of the word “liberalism” I suppose, is quite different from the history of the idea of liberalism, however one defines it. Should we define liberalism as the sum of its historical definitions, by the views of those who called themselves liberal, or can we define it in the present as a certain theory and then look backwards for its antecedents? Either seems possible. At the least, one needs to recognize the possibility of defining liberalism in ways that differ from the historical usage of the term. Concepts, like “liberalism” are, to use a phrase from the philosopher W.B. Gallie, “essentially contested.” That is, there are disputes about the meaning of the term that cannot be solved by empirical observation. Liberalism is also not entirely a descriptive term, but carries with it a certain normative weight. It can be judged good or bad, or good or bad elements can be included or excluded from the definition. I’m afraid that no amount of historical evidence can tell us what liberalism is. It can only tell us what others have thought it to be.

If one were to write the history of the idea of liberalism, then surely one could look at thinkers like Locke and Hobbes who lived and died before the word “liberalism” came into use. But if one writes the history of word “liberalism” one can start in 1811, at the time when the word liberal first appear in printed Spanish sources.  Rosenblatt does this, but leads smartly with a chapter on “liberality” and “liberal” and what those words meant in a 16th and 17th century conception.

In this same vein, the book displays, I think, all too much emphasis on drawing lines connecting thinkers who call themselves liberals, and not enough latitude given for those who would be part of a liberal tradition, but who call themselves by other names. Burke, for example called himself a liberal, but is now seen as a quintessential conservative. In a sense, Burke and his defenders lost the debate over the meaning of the term liberal. By focusing on the word liberal, and its early use in France, the narrative treats liberalism as something with an origin, and a direction, like an arrow launched from a bow. But one might also treat liberalism as a constellation of ideas, of various and sometimes conflicting views on freedom and social order that coalesced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Or, one could, like Samuel Hammond, has done, argue that liberal principles were not created and defined, but discovered over and again.

Any large synthesis is going to face scrutiny by experts on more particular topics, but I imagine that individual sections of the book will hold up quite well. Chapter seven is one of the more interesting contributions of the book. Rosenblatt describes the early 20th century battle to control the meaning of the term “liberalism.” There were two schools, one for and one against laissez-faire, one that thought free markets had always been a tenant of liberalism, and one that disagreed. Rosenblatt credits John Dewey and Franklin Roosevelt for winning the term liberalism for the progressive left. The invention of “classical liberalism” to oppose the new liberalism on the left, she sees as a response of Americans to Cold War totalitarianism. It is a shame, here, however that Rosenblatt did not cite the work of Scott Shubitz. She may not have been aware of his publications, since his chapter “Beyond Laissez-Faire and State Power: A Critical Look at the Transformation Thesis and Classical Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century America” in my co-edited book, What is Classical Liberal History?  provides a deep analysis of the currents in the debate about the term. Shubitz has also written a dissertation on this topic and I find his views pretty convincing.

Rosenblatt ought to be commended for not going down the neoliberalism rabbit hole. It is curious, however, how little focus she gives to free trade, which many have seen as an essential component of 19th century British liberalism. “Free trade” is not listed in the index, although freedom of association, religion, speech, and the press are. Richard Cobden is mentioned only once, for example, as is John Bright, but in neither case does Rosenblatt call these free traders liberals. In France, meanwhile, she has the proponents of “laissez-faire” standing in opposition to liberal trade principles, and she notes that “Liberals were never of one mind on the issue of tariffs.” (p. 81) In general, Rosenblatt wants to show the diverse views on economics held by liberals in the nineteenth century. Fair enough, but this seems to fall short of her thesis that laissez faire was never central to the liberal tradition. Indeed, she recognizes at one point that there were laissez-faire liberals in France and in England in the 1830s and 1840s, and that these drew some inspiration from Adam Smith, although she sees them as ultimately unsuccessful. (p. 107). The term “classical liberalism” is problematic enough, but if we are to look backwards for something we might include in that tradition, it seems that there are plenty of candidates including not only Smith, Bright and Cobden, but also Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and even H.L. Mencken.

Other reviews have mentioned it odd that Trump did not appear in the book, and I for one am not eager to read another book that brings everything up to date in the now trite “Age of Trump”, but one could recognize that the populists today often call themselves the true defenders of the liberal order. Populists see in liberal history the rise and defense of nation-states, and I think they have every right to identify themselves with that tradition. Liberalism in the 19th century was cosmopolitan and international, but liberal ideas played out on the national stage. This book wants to claim liberalism for the French, for the Germans, for Herbert Croly, Franklin Roosevelt and for Arthur Schlesinger. These all have a right to be included, but I think liberalism is a wider and messier thing.

Most of the general facts in this book have been available elsewhere, and so it is not that the history of liberalism has been lost and only now discovered, but Rosenblatt’s interpretation seems novel and useful. Publishers love these kinds of titles, but I wonder if, after a while, we can no longer publish a history of anything, only a hidden history, or a lost history, or something to this effect.


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