Is 18th Century Liberalism to Blame for All Our Problems?

For some time now, Canadian historian Ricardo Duchesne, who is known as a critic of ethnic and cultural pluralism, has been reacting unfavorably to my assessments of historical liberalism. According to Duchesne, my sympathetic treatment (particularly in my book After Liberalism) of the predominant bourgeois liberal values of the 19th-century West, stems from my fondness for “liberal capitalism.” This predilection also putatively derives from my attempt to isolate a bourgeois culture from the march of liberal ideas to which that culture supposedly belongs. 

18th Century Liberalism
After liberalism : mass
democracy in the managerial
state, by Paul Gottfried

The continuing march of noxious liberal ideas, according to Duchesne in an article at The Unz Review called “Blame Liberal Pluralism for the Impeding Ethnocide of Europeans,” goes from Locke, Kant, and the founders of the American republic down to the present woke left. In all its phases, liberal ideology has focused on an abstract humanity, universalized rights, and material progress. This has caused its bearers to ignore national identities, those prescribed rights developed by particular peoples, and the value of inherited hierarchies.

Reading Duchesne, I have the feeling that I’ve encountered his ideas before, particularly in European counterrevolutionary thinkers and in the political figure to whom I have devoted considerable scholarship, Carl Schmitt. I shall also confess to having mined some of the same conceptual sources on which Duchesne draws, and I have cited those sources against neoconservative and conventional leftist opponents. Some may look upon my differences with this critic as an intramural squabble, but in this instance, it may be a bit more. 

Duchesne’s picture of liberalism as something that has been unfolding in more or less the same recognizable form for centuries and his unhappiness with my sympathy for some of its earlier, and in my view more authentic manifestations, exemplify a historical shortcut taken by some on the right. Those who are drawn to this shortcut are not the so-called fake right. They understand how fully Western societies have strayed from being a sane and possessing normal authority structures and a sense of the collective self. Unlike bogus conservatives, true men of the right don’t pretend that things first got out of hand a few years ago; and if only we got back to Reagan’s America, then we’d be the shining beacon of hope for the rest of the world once again. To their credit, these observers have a much deeper sense of the extent of our derailment as a society.

The problem with this otherwise worthy fellowship is where they wish to place blame for our social disintegration. They look back to a distant past to establish where things came apart; and this has given rise to what I characterize as an inverted Whig interpretation of history. The English historian Herbert Butterfield published a critical study, The Whig Interpretation of History, in 1931. In it he gently chided 19th-century progressive English historians for their parochialism. Although I’m not sure I’d characterize the representatives of that interpretive tradition, like Thomas Macauley and George Trevelyan, as Whigs (a term that by the 19th century was becoming obsolete), Butterfield does prove his subjects were fixated on the idea of progress. And, despite Butterfield’s criticism, much of what those men praised could indeed be regarded as improvement, such as the integration of an educated middle class into the English government, religious tolerance, and a higher standard of living than the one that existed centuries earlier. 

These progressive historians, moreover, looked for figures long in the past to whom they could give credit for what they viewed as signs of human advancement. Typically, they put the Protestant reformers in the forefront of those who previewed such forward-thinking reforms as religious inclusiveness, individual freedom, and constitutional government. Although there may have been some long, tortuous road that led from these early Protestants toward the world of the progressive historians, these figures, as Butterfield underlines, generally held the same views on most things as their Catholic adversaries. 

Aside from breaking from the Catholic Church over certain doctrinal questions, Luther and Calvin shared the same views as their Catholic adversaries about political authority and the need for ecclesiastical oversight of religious beliefs. According to Butterfield, trying to fit these theologians into the orthodoxy of a later age is a highly dubious enterprise. One must understand historical actors in the context of their age, and that is the job of the honest historian.

Observers on the modern right look back to the distant past with a similar present-mindedness and instead of picking the forerunner to honor, they select villains to blame for our current problems. Thus, they draw wavy or indistinct genealogical lines extending from medieval Nominalists or the Protestant reformers or early advocates of constitutional government all the way to 2023 progressives like Ibram X. Kendi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Once influential people strayed from idealized medieval institutions and absorbed early modern ideas, a path was supposedly set that led the Western world almost inescapably toward the follies of the present hour.  

What they lose sight of is the fact that cumulative changes were already occurring in an earlier Western society that would carry into a later age. The philosophical or ecclesiological changes that these inverted Whig historians choose to focus on were connected to more general processes of change, the origins of which can be discovered even further back in time. In any case, what these changes produced were transitions to what occurred in the 15th or 16th century. They did not inevitably bring about what happened many centuries later in the cultural and political sphere. Those in search of good or bad turning points in history privilege certain events that in themselves may not have had the transformative power attributed to them.

Unlike broad rhetorical generalizations, such as “Everything fell apart in the 14th century and we’re still suffering the effects,” serious historical analysis allows us to reach demonstrable conclusions. For example, one can assert with a fair degree of certitude that the American Civil War ended in such a way that the states thereafter were destined to become defenseless creatures of the American central government. One may cheer or regret that outcome, but it is hard to see how the brutally suppressed attempt of states to secede from the Union in 1861 could have led to different results.

To take another example, whether or not one is pleased with the outcome, it is hard to deny that the civil rights revolution that began in this country in the 1950s has created the legal, political and cultural anti-discrimination regime we face now, which is still being almost daily advanced by both public administration and the corporate leftist media. Each successive phase of this increasingly controlling regime seems related to the one that preceded it and to the one that came after. Needless to say, one can apply a similar judgment to the dynamic of the French Revolution, particularly if one views the Napoleonic Wars as a continuation of the cataclysm that started in July 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. 

One may also speculate about the cumulative effect of certain historical influences and attitudes over a long period of time, such as blind submissiveness to the state, secularism, anti-Semitism, individualism, feminism, or consumerism. To what extent do such forces imprint societies? One may respond to this question by observing that such influences cannot be examined in the same way as developments that take place in more limited time frames, and especially in the same society. But such studies of historical influences may suggest that there were long-term effects created by certain ideas and attitudes, and so we shouldn’t dismiss such investigations out of hand.

It would be fair to say, for example, that countries with no discernible traditions of anti-Semitism, like Bulgaria, Serbia, Denmark, and Norway, were less willing to cooperate with Nazi attempts to round up and kill Jews than countries, like Ukraine, which reveal a definite anti-Semitic history. But even in this case we should note that Soviet leaders who were responsible for the Ukrainian mass famine in the 1930s were, like Lazare Kaganovich, often Jewish. That may have weighed more heavily in determining the behavior of some Ukrainian collaborators during the Nazi German occupation than Ukraine’s earlier anti-Jewish attitudes. 

A more convincing case of continuity can be seen in the way certain Protestant understandings of the state and individual responsibility shaped American political and moral attitudes from the 18th century on. The Calvinist conception of a godly commonwealth, the emphasis on being a virtuous people, and the effects of millenarian movements all left their mark on American history and thought. Although there is much in this Protestant tradition to admire, the missionary impulse in American foreign policy may also go back to this religious origin, which is something we may justly lament. In any case we are speaking in the situation of American Protestantism about an influence that operated in the same country for a long period of time. It was not an influence the continuity of which requires invention or surmising.

Duchesne’s speculation about liberal ideas seems more problematic than the examples of continuing influence I’ve just cited. He points to philosophers and statesmen who, centuries ago, advocated for individual rights, which they thought were universally applicable. By affirming and enforcing such rights, these
historical actors supposedly contributed to our present conception of liberalism. Although Duchesne concedes some earlier liberals may have been appalled by the effect of their thinking, nonetheless their work, we are told, led in a particular direction, one that culminated in our woke culture and politics. 

But why should we begin this unhappy story in the 17th century? Didn’t St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians speak about Jew and Greek, men and women all becoming one in Christ? And what about the end times vision in Deutero-Isaiah in which the Hebrew prophet speaks about all people living peacefully in a future age? Perhaps what Duchesne denounces as liberalism starts in the Bible, as some neopagans have strenuously argued. If that is the case, then one may wonder why biblical universalism did not result in either world government or the leveling of social ranks many centuries ago. Early Christianity went on to become a state religion in a highly stratified society that most definitely did not practice Duchesne’s hated “liberal pluralism.”

Equally important, shouldn’t one have to look closely at those societies in which particular ideas and principles become instantiated to grasp their effect on those who have been exposed to them? Here we encounter some striking inconsistencies. Southern slave states had constitutions that were written in the late 18th century, and which incorporated what were presented as universal rights. John Locke invested his money heavily in the slave trade and constructed a constitution for the Carolinas with slavery built into it. But Locke simultaneously developed a political philosophy around the concept of natural rights; and it was one that the Southern planter class put into their political documents. Were those who affirmed universal individual rights inconsistent in their practice, or did they believe in universal rights only in a qualified sense? 

Moreover, those who introduced the American and British welfare state did not justify their undertaking on the basis of universal rights. They more typically claimed to be building a modern national state in which trained administrators would look after its citizens. Further, some American progressives who glorified early American public administration were also racialists and outspoken opponents of immigration. One might therefore describe their political reforms as having at least partly unintended consequences. Anti-pluralists contributed to building a regime that they would have repudiated in its later form.

It is also unclear, despite Duchesne’s argument, that wokeness represents the triumph of an older liberalism. It is hard to recognize in what woke elites are imposing on us the bourgeois liberalism of an earlier time. Yanking some abstract concept from a centuries-old document or speech and then trying to show it as a developmental stage that led to the present novelties about, for example, racial equity or transgenderism leaves much to be desired as a research technique. Rather it is best to investigate the institutions and practices of a particular society to understand what principles and concerns were dominant there. 

In my book After Liberalism, which Duchesne regards as having whitewashed the reputation of the liberal bourgeoisie of the 19th century, which he regards as financially grasping social radicalizers, I set out to show how conservatively they actually acted and thought. Liberalism at that time referred to constitutionally responsible government, a free-market economy relative to the mercantile one it replaced, religious freedom within well-defined traditional cultural and moral limits, and academic freedom within the same general limits. Those who voted for parties that contained the word “liberal” were typically nationalists, not universalists. Most liberals, certainly in Protestant countries, were churched, and they were likely to hold Victorian views about the family and gender roles. I doubt Professor Duchesne would have found these often-self-described liberals to be the “liberal pluralists” whom he identifies as the gravediggers of Western civilization.

It is also open to question whether most self-described liberals believed in universal individual rights. They believed in constitutional government run by the affluent and educated, national autonomy, and material progress. They may even have opposed slavery and objected to the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres in India. But they certainly had no qualms about restricting immigration and limiting the vote to propertied males of a certain age.

In my book I noted the absence of support from these bourgeois gentlemen for social democratic forms of public administration. (One does find a different position in a figure like John Stuart Mill, who was a progressive democrat and feminist, but who is sometimes mistaken for a conventional English liberal.) And I find even less leading from bourgeois liberalism to the changes undergone by Western societies since the middle of the last century.

Duchesne also makes this criticism of my view of liberalism in a response to my essay “Marx Was not Woke” in the April Chronicles. “Gottfried is trying to save liberal capitalism from wokeness while unable to deny that corporate capitalists are benefitting from wokeness,” Duchesne wrote. “They are benefitting because the progressive logic of liberal capitalism leads to wokeness.”

For the record, I never claimed that today’s corporate capitalists have anything to do culturally or ideologically with bourgeois liberalism. Just because woke leftists buy and trade stocks does not mean they are liberal in the social sense in which I am using that term. A terrorist band could engage in the same financial activity without thereby becoming historic liberals. 

One must of course address the question about what brought about the changes the right should deplore. My answer is that it was a vast complex of circumstances, starting with a transformative public administration apparatus that has subverted and replaced traditional social hierarchies and communal relations. This tyranny has been sustained by the reckless widening of the franchise and the politicization of the family. The modern media and a radicalized educational system, which have spread throughout the Western world, have likewise furthered our continuing political and moral revolution.

Quite understandably, those who oppose this revolutionary order are now stunned by what they observe and are still looking for comprehensive explanations. Like James Burnham, Sam Francis, and others who have written on this subject, I believe we are living with the consequences of an experiment that has turned out disastrously, the managerialization of the world, which has now brought the curse of a universal woke religion. 

Unlike Professor Duchesne, I do not in any way blame either the 18th-century designers of America’s Constitution or the 19th-century defenders of industrial capitalism for the crushing problems we now face. But I do agree with European counterrevolutionaries, starting with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, who viewed the assault on traditional authorities as leading to upheaval and tyranny. We are now witnessing the truth of their prophecy in the form of anarcho-tyranny, a condition that is not likely to be cured in the foreseeable future.

—Paul Gottfried

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