Liberalism Then and Now

Historically, liberalism was proffered as an answer to the left. That is what gave it its political heft and social depth. For the last half-century, it’s been proffered as an answer to the right. Therein lies the problem.


  1. Clifford Owen Smith (@sanzarispetto) October 27, 2014 at 12:21 am | #

    Please tell me that this is merely the seed of a thought to be completed in much greater detail very soon.

  2. Ochtona_Princemps October 27, 2014 at 12:42 am | #

    This probably isn’t your intended meaning, but to me this line suggests that much fault for our current situation lies with “the Left” The tactical, theoretical, and practical failures of leftists in the 20th century rendered them irrelevant, leaving liberalism alone to play to role of counterforce to conservatism, which you correctly note is a role liberalism is not well suited to play.

  3. msobel October 27, 2014 at 1:23 am | #

    because there is no credible threat to the Plutocracy from the left.

    Marc Sobel 303-440-6403 My Author Page on Amazon

  4. Brett October 27, 2014 at 2:27 am | #

    There’s that, although it doesn’t explain why the left is still so weak in this country. It’s been nearly 25 years since the Cold War ended, decades since HUAC and the purges of communists, and it’s not like the left had it easier before the Cold War anyways – they had the same type of rhetoric about socialism and communism thrown at them.

    But I guess there’s some victories, like minimum wage rises.

  5. Paisley Currah October 27, 2014 at 5:28 am | #

    Just re-reading Wendy Brown’s “Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy” for my class. That liberalism has sadly become a defense against the right is only half the problem. Even liberalism–which held out the hope that there are some things that can’t be measured by market logics– has been surpassed by neo-liberal rationality and so its force as a counterweight–well, let’s just say it’s sitting on the high end of what we used to call a teeter-totter.

    “So the Left [this is 2003] is losing something it never loved, or at best was highly ambivalent about.”

    “Whatever loose identity we had as a Left took shape in terms of a differentiation from liberalism’s willful obliviousness to social stratification and injury glossed and hence secured by its formal juridical categories of liberty and equality.”

    “So the idea that Leftists must automatically defend liberal political values when they are on the ropes, while sensible from a liberal perspective, does not facilitate a Left challenge to neo-liberalism if the Left still aims at something other than liberal democracy in a capitalist socio-economic order.”

  6. BillR October 27, 2014 at 8:31 am | #
    • Corey Robin October 27, 2014 at 8:39 am | #

      Hi, BillR. Would you mind emailing me directly at I wanted to asked you a question. Thanks, Corey

    • weshamrick October 27, 2014 at 4:04 pm | #

      “It was not liberalism that imposed the requirement of universal suffrage in Europe, but rather Jacobinism – the radical tide of the French Revolution.”

      If the implication of the OP is that liberalism itself is the problem, then the answer is some version of republicanism (here called “Jacobinism”). Or what Pettit calls “freedom as non-domination.”

      Side note. I’m not a political philosopher, but I’m surprised to see Edmund Burke often characterized in the literature as representative of liberalism. I know later liberals enlisted him in their ranks, but that’s entirely apocryphal.

      As a practical matter, I think it’s important in public debates/discussions to emphasize that the “founding fathers” were neither liberals nor libertarians. Specialists recognize that, but not the typical voter.

  7. mischling2nd October 27, 2014 at 9:35 am | #

    For most of the 20th century, the great fear of the capitalist West was Communism (The USSR, “Red China,” etc.) The Cold War was a “moral war” in which the capitalist and Communist words were in competition to “prove” to the world (especially the Third World) which economic/political system was better. With the demise of Communism, there is no longer any real political competition for the capitalist West and therefore no reason to play Mister Nice Guy.

    A common plot in American TV comedies was the one in which Russian diplomats come to the USA looking for oppressed, starving workers and can’t find any. It was in the interest of the Western capitalists to have a prosperous working class. Now there’s no reason or incentive to keep playing that game.

    • jake the antisoshul soshulist October 30, 2014 at 9:28 am | #

      There is no longer any coherent movement to keep the Capitalists honest. At this point it seems that the best we can achieve is to ameliorate the worst of Capitalism.

  8. weshamrick October 27, 2014 at 11:26 am | #

    (Is there a working definition of Left and Right here?)

    In any case, how important is the notion of the corporation as person in this situation? Liberalism (property rights, right of contract, etc) for giant, powerful, non-human entities isn’t essential to liberal political philosophy, but of course it gets furtively construed as if that’s the natural and logical outcome.

  9. Jessica A Bruno (waybeyondfedup) October 27, 2014 at 2:17 pm | #
  10. Peter Principle October 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm | #

    And then we reached the point where Clinton & Blair & the “Third Way” were the answer to liberalism…

  11. Troy Grant October 27, 2014 at 6:30 pm | #

    Instead of trying to restore liberalism to the Democratic Party, it may be simpler to turn the Republican Party liberal by joining it en masse. Libs can adopt some Libertarian positions Republicans have been sold and include one crucial provision: each citizen will be issued equal, non-negotiable shares in the commons, (before other corporations privatize it all and take it from us).

    Owning equal shares in the public airwaves, public lands, marine and terrestrial resources, public buildings, the military, police, Intelligence, government, etc., obtaining equal dividends from its rents and leases, and insuring these are used properly and without damage will banish poverty from our nation.

    As equal shareholders of USA Inc., We the People would become the largest, richest and most powerful corporation against which all others would have to compete. Decisions would be made in one person, one vote periodic online shareholder’s meetings, like any other corporation.

    This is direct democracy through the back door.

  12. Roquentin October 27, 2014 at 7:52 pm | #

    I’d approach the question differently. For most of the 20th century, the job of the ideologists in the US was to make our system look better than that of the USSR. The arguments basically boiled down to “capitalism is still better than really existing socialism because of all the great freedoms and commodities we get” or something similar.

    Once the USSR and PRC were on the wane, capitalism didn’t even need to offer that. Hence the current crop of “You’ll get nothing and like it” conservatives. Libertarians try to counter this with a “Do whatever you damn well please, just let us keep the money” attitude. I think this is the future, if there is any such thing, of the right wing in America. They’d sacrifice practically anything to keep this bloated system of hideous inequality going for a few more years.

  13. Devin Doyle October 27, 2014 at 8:35 pm | #

    I believe your assertion is correct. It’s hard to tell now if liberals regularly deviate from the platform of the political left or not. It’s not as if they’ve merged, it’s just that they’ve lost their individual identities.

  14. GerardO October 28, 2014 at 1:10 am | #

    It’s lucky that you aren’t any kind of liberal then.

  15. Magpie October 28, 2014 at 6:54 am | #

    Good things, when short, are twice as good. There is wisdom in that proverb.

    • Troy Grant October 28, 2014 at 3:16 pm | #

      Except for sex.

      • gstally October 30, 2014 at 11:01 pm | #

        Oh don’t be silly. Depending, a quickie can be the best thing ever!

  16. LBHistory October 28, 2014 at 8:51 am | #

    What do you mean by “liberalism”? It didn’t really take on its modern meaning in the US until the 1930’s, when it replaced “Progressive,” in some circles. Hayek and Friedman regretted that the term, which they saw as descriptive of their worldview, had been hijacked by the left-of-center. And in Europe the term continues to be understood as Americans understood it in the 19th c.

    • Corey Robin October 28, 2014 at 9:21 am | #

      In the nineteenth century, I’m definitely thinking of Europe. So Mill would be the emblematic figure, whose liberalism was definitely pushed by the left to come up with the following formulation in his autobiography, describing his and his wife’s position: “The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.”

      And then in the 20th century in the US the term takes on the sense that you’re talking about it today. But the process that led to that revision was decades in the making; it didn’t just emerge out of nowhere in the 30s. (Even in Europe, I’d add, the term liberalism does not necessarily reside on the Hayekian side of things; there’s a recent piece on the web by the philosopher Stuart White — from which I got that Mill quote — that shows that the postwar Liberal Party position was in fact something like the liberal position in the US in the 1930s, broadly speaking.)

    • Yoram Gat October 28, 2014 at 3:47 pm | #

      I think it can be defined as an ideology nominally advocating “equality of opportunity” and a lower bound on outcomes.

      In those same terms left wing ideology would be defined as advocating equality of outcomes and (modern) right wing ideology would nominally advocate equality of opportunity.

      • jake the antisoshul soshulist October 30, 2014 at 9:44 am | #

        Nominally being the key word.
        I would say that the current state of the left wing would be to enact policies that would result in more equal outcomes.
        The current state of liberalism would be to enact policies to promote more equal opportunity.
        The current state of conservatism would be enact policies that continue (at the least) the current economic hierarchies, while nominally supporting equality of opportunity.
        In the real world, it would be more accurate to say “we are all neo-liberals now.

  17. Peter Dorman October 28, 2014 at 7:54 pm | #

    This is an interesting thought. It does fit nicely into the more general argument about the collapse of socialism (collective ownership of capital) as a viable political movement in most democratic countries, and the effect this had on the willingness of elites to find a middle ground with non-elite interests. (This is part of the story of the disappearance of the Keynesian political coalition.)

    There are other factors internal to liberalism. In the US, the Lippmann “tendency” defeated the Dewey alternative rather decisively, with effects that became apparent after the New Deal tide receded — but this needs to be explained too. And in much of Europe the center-left became the standard-bearer for marketization, in opposition to the social conservatism of the right. Now that I think about it, there is a story to be told about the conversion of center-left policy intellectuals and Democratic party types into market enablers during the Carter administration, around the same time similar things were happening across the Atlantic.

  18. dcrawford October 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm | #

    Liberalism today is the problem, rather than any kind of solution. With the decline of communitarianism and collectivism, and the and of any serious attempt to consider what might be good for society as a whole, the inheritors of Locke have finally won. Human beings, detached from any larger social context, are becoming isolated, alienated individual ciphers, pursuing economic advancement and personal autonomy to the exclusion of all else . And obviously the wealthier you are the more of both you will achieve. This is why the left was against liberalism (and vice versa) for so long.

  19. Troy Grant October 30, 2014 at 8:55 pm | #

    The only left that was against liberalism was the conservative or authoritarian left, not much different from the conservative or authoritarian right.

  20. gstally October 30, 2014 at 10:59 pm | #

    Man I am addicted to your work, always gives me a lot to think about. 10/10

  21. jake the antisoshul soshulist November 4, 2014 at 9:40 am | #

    Prof. Robin,
    I left a couple of comments that went to moderation and have not shown up. I am curious about the reasons for this.
    Thank You’
    Jake Gibson

    • Corey Robin November 4, 2014 at 3:04 pm | #

      Didn’t see them till your note. They’re out of moderation now.

      • jake the anti-soshul soshulist November 5, 2014 at 10:11 am | #

        Thank you

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