Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

Michaela DeSoucey: Bastille Day Appetizers

Michaela DeSoucey

desoucey jacketAmid the current political disarray caused by the recent Brexit vote and the ongoing refugee crisis, questions of what determines national identity are hot-button issues in France, and across Europe. Claims to national solidarity and shared symbols of national collective identity often rise to the fore on holidays. These appeals to unique histories and cultural practices are not just internal appeals to common descent or principles; they allege uniqueness vis-à-vis others and can trigger zeal toward a sense of belonging and pride in particular places.

Today is Bastille Day in France – the day that commemorates the July 14th, 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, which proved a turning point for the oncoming French Revolution and the declaration of a monarch-less French Republic. On this day, people around France will fête the French nation with parties and meals shared with family and friends. What will they eat, to represent this day? Symbolically and substantively, foods can offer multiple identity-laden markers for people and for groups. Eating is one way people demonstrate their political sentiments of national belonging and togetherness. Here in the U.S., for example, we eat turkey on Thanksgiving and call things “as American as apple pie.” Politicians on the campaign trail go out of their ways to be seen eating down-to-earth and local specialties (which can sometimes result in infamy, such as being seen eating a slice of New York pizza with a fork and knife).

Cuisine has long been one of France’s greatest sources of domestic and international pride. One food valorized as a quintessential symbol of French identity on the national plate is foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been manually force-fed with a tube. Foie gras is also a target of critical opposition, fueled by international animal rights organizations who call its production process cruel and inhumane.

In my new book, Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, I explore how foie gras came to represent French national culture and identity – a multifaceted process and a form of claimsmaking that I call ‘gastronationalism’ – and, for better or worse, what ramifications this has had. My book argues that these sentiments have developed at least in part because people elsewhere have challenged its very existence. In the last few decades, foie gras has been held up by France’s cultural and political leaders as an endangered tradition, at risk from the winds of globalization, Europeanization, and American cultural influences.

Foie gras has come to play a role in gastronational visions of Frenchness within France, too. In fact, the knot connecting foie gras and French identity has been tied so tightly that foie gras has even become a symbol used by some xenophobic political extremists aiming to draw starker lines around what they consider legitimate citizenship. When I was in France a decade ago, one of the country’s largest foie gras producers, Labeyrie, was targeted by several ultra-nationalist groups who condemned the company for marketing some of its foie gras products as halal, meaning suitable for consumption by Muslims. Their base complaint was that by paying a required certification fee to a French mosque to use a halal label, Labeyrie was funding Islamic worship and “taking the risk of supporting Islamic terrorism.” More to their point, it was marketing foie gras in France to people who these groups see as decidedly not French.

After several boycott threats and protests outside its shops, Labeyrie temporarily stopped using a halal label. They reverted the following year and were again subject to ultra-nationalist denunciations. The company was then criticized by members of France’s Muslim community – an estimated 6-7 million people seen by consumer product firms as an emerging and profitable market demographic – for being vulnerable to the pressures of right-wing media, because the company’s website, advertisements, and e-shop no longer showed images of halal foie gras labels, even though the products remained available in retail stores.

Yet, even with recent upsurges of social turmoil around race and religion, not everyone is on board with such a xenophobic mindset. Halal foie gras is now available all the time at national supermarkets and chain stores, produced by several different companies. And, multiple news outlets have reported on the rise of halal foie gras consumption among Muslims, especially upwardly mobile ones, in France over the last decade. Quotes from community leaders attribute this rise to desire for belonging in the category of ‘French’ and indicate popular perceptions that consuming foie gras is a meaningful way to do that.

Food and eating are, and continue to be, important sites where broader conflicts over national culture and identities manifest. In countries increasingly affected by political discord, I see food continuing to communicate both social acceptance and rejection of others. And on national holidays like Bastille Day, foie gras will likely be consumed as part of what it means to celebrate one’s country, or, at the least, its rapidly receding past.

Michaela DeSoucey is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. She is author of Contested Tastes.

An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.