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.

An interview with Edmund Fawcett about “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea”

Fawcett jacketIs liberal democracy in need of a serious overhaul? As we release the paperback of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, (which includes a new preface), Edmund Fawcett took the time to answer some questions about his book, including whether liberalism means different things in Europe than it does in America, where exactly liberal democracy comes from, and what about it is in need of repair.

Why liberalism and why a history?

EF: My book’s topical for a simple reason. Where liberal democracy exists, it badly needs repair. Where it doesn’t, it is losing appeal. Nobody disputes that. What’s harder is to say what liberal democracy is and why it matters. Oddly, few books tell us. Mine does both. We need to see where liberal democracy come from. We need to see what we risk losing. As history, my book looks ahead by looking back.

What makes your book on liberalism different?

EF: It looks past disputed, misleading labels like “freedom” or “the individual” to what liberals really care about and aim for. It combines history and ideas. It foregrounds French and German liberals, too often ignored. It handles tricky academic disputes–in politics, economics and philosophy–in a readable, non-academic way. It holds a complicated, 200-year story together through lives and thoughts of exemplary thinkers and politicians.

Don’t Europeans and Americans mean different things by “liberal”?

EF: Not really. On the American right, it’s true, “liberal” is a term of abuse. On the European left, “liberal” means a lackey of neo-capitalism. We can’t, though, let sloganeers hog the argument. France, Germany and the US are liberal democracies. China and Russia are not. Everybody understands what those two sentences mean. Nobody seriously disputes that they are true. The meaning problem with “liberal” is a side issue.

Some reviewers found your liberal tent too big, your idea of liberalism too loose.

EF: Funny complaints for a book on liberalism. It’s not a sect or creed. Inclusiveness ought to be a liberal virtue. Seriously, Liberalism set out four key ideas that unite liberals and tell them apart from their rivals, then and now: resistance to power, faith in progress, equal respect for people and acceptance that social conflict was inevitable, but containable. I distinguished liberalism from democracy, often confused, and described how in the 20th century liberal democracy grew out of historic compromises between the two.

In your big cast of more than 50 characters, name some favorites.

EF: In the 19th century, the thinker John Stuart Mill, for trying hardest to hold together liberal conflicting elements together. Lincoln for his power of liberal words. In the 20th century, Lyndon Johnson for the liberal capacity to change and Germany’s Willy Brandt for the ability to admit national wrong. And now? It’s hard to see one’s own time. Giants are only visible looking back. A fair guess: today’s liberal giants won’t all be white, US-European and male.

What is new in your preface to the paperback?

EF: I answer criticisms, some fair, some not fair. I clarify points of mine that led to misunderstandings. I stress that why I wrote the book–challenges to liberal democracy from inside and out–strikes me as even more pressing now than when I began. I explain that I left out critics and alternatives to liberalism from right and left. Those topics were too vast for one book, though I’m turning to conservatism now.

Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.

PUP News of the World — September 29, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles — this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


Liberalism

Do you think you know what liberalism is? This vulnerable but critically important political creed dominates today’s politics just as it decisively shaped the past two hundred years of American and European history. Yet there is striking disagreement about what liberalism really means and how it arose.

In an engrossing history of liberalism—the first in English for many decades—veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea is reviewed in the New Republic. David Marquand writes:

Fawcett’s workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism’s rise and fall.

In Switzerland, Liberalism is reviewed in Neue Zuercher Zeitung. No matter what your political views, you will want to preview the introduction of Liberalism.

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The Bee

“Are the Bees Back Up on Their Knees?” A New York Times piece by PUP author Noah Wilson-Rich addresses the issue of colony collapse disorder, C.C.D., and what comes next for the bee. Wilson-Rich writes:

I became a beekeeper in 2005. When C.C.D. started, I was studying how social animals like honeybees resisted disease. We still don’t really know why C.C.D. was happening, but it looks as if we are turning the corner: Scientists I’ve spoken to in both academia and government have strong reason to believe that C.C.D. is essentially over. This finding is based on data from the past three years — or perhaps, more accurately, the lack thereof. There have been no conclusively documented cases of C.C.D. in the strict sense. Perhaps C.C.D. will one day seem like yet another blip on the millennium-plus timeline of unexplained bee die-offs. Luckily, the dauntless efforts of beekeepers have brought bee populations back each time.

While this is undoubtedly good news, we cannot let it blind us to a hard truth. Bees are still dying; it’s just that we’re finding the dead bodies now, whereas with C.C.D., they were vanishing. Bees are still threatened by at least three major enemies: diseases, chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.) and habitat loss.

Check out the full op-ed for Wilson-Rich’s take on the importance of pollinators and what policy changes could help the future of the bee. You can also hear an interview with Wilson-Rich on Radio Boston:

Wilson-Rich is the author of The Bee: A Natural History.

This book takes an incomparable look at this astounding diversity, blending an engaging narrative with practical, hands-on discussions of such topics as beekeeping and bee health. It explores our relationship with the bee over evolutionary time, delving into how it came to be, where it stands today, and what the future holds for humanity and bees alike.

The Bee

  • Provides an accessible, illustrated look at the human–bee relationship over time
  • Features a section on beekeeping and handy go-to guides to the identification, prevention, and treatment of honey bee diseases Covers bee evolution, ecology, genetics, and physiology
  • Includes a directory of notable bee species
  • Presents a holistic approach to bee health, including organic and integrated pest management techniques
  • Shows what you can do to help bee populations

Readers are buzzing about it — join in and preview the introduction of The Bee for yourself.

 

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the past week

 

These are the best-selling books for the past week.

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
 Carlson_Tesla jacket Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
DarwinFinches
40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island by Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant
Fernandez_Everyday cover Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
Fawcett_Liberalism_S14 Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
The Five Elements of Effective Thinking
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird
I Ching The I Ching or Book of Changes, edited by Hellmut Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Baynes
thebox The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
OnBullshit On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
shtetl
The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

 

 

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the past week

These are the best-selling books for the past week.

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
shtetl The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Fawcett_Liberalism_S14
Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
Fernandez_Everyday cover Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
Carlson_Tesla jacket Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
thebox
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
OnBullshit On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
The Five Elements of Effective Thinking The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird
I Ching The I Ching or Book of Changes, edited by Hellmut Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Baynes
SouloftheWorld
The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton

 

PUP News of the World, May 23, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


BirdGenie

Planning your outdoor adventures for the upcoming summer? Picnic baskets, sunscreen — the list of outdoor essentials goes on. But this summer, PUP is adding another item to the list, and you won’t want to leave home without it.

BirdGenie™ is a remarkable app that enables anyone with a supported Apple® or Android® smartphone or tablet to identify birds in the backyard, at the local park, or on the nature trail–all with the tap of a button! It’s like Shazam® for nature–just hold up your phone, record the bird singing, and BirdGenie tells you what bird it is! This summer, PUP will be releasing two apps, each covering a separate region: Backyard Birds East and Backyard Birds West. This week, the apps were featured in Inside Higher Ed, and the article quotes one of the developers, Tom Stephenson, author of The Warbler Guide:

“The one thing about field guides is that the print medium isn’t quite sufficient for the information that you’re trying to relay, but it’s been the only vehicle up until recently. Having a vehicle like an app or an ebook that has multimedia capabilities is not only natural, but really adds a lot value. The song identification app is another step further.”

Each regional app contains eighty vocalization types for sixty bird species, covering almost all of the birds you are likely to encounter. When you hear a singing bird and make a clear recording with your smartphone or tablet, BirdGenie identifies the bird if it is an included species, tells you exactly how confident it is that the identification is correct, and provides audio samples of the bird’s various songs to compare with your own recording, as well as color photos, useful information, and links to further reading. No internet connection is needed, making BirdGenie accessible everywhere you go.

COUNT LIKE AN EGYPTIAN

For those who have mastered — or almost mastered — modern math, we’re traveling back in time to bring you a curve-ball problem. David Reimer’s Count Like an Egyptian provides a fun, hands-on introduction to the intuitive and often-surprising art of ancient Egyptian math. Reimer guides you step-by-step through addition, subtraction, multiplication, and more. He even shows you how fractions and decimals may have been calculated–they technically didn’t exist in the land of the pharaohs. You’ll be counting like an Egyptian in no time, and along the way you’ll learn firsthand how mathematics is an expression of the culture that uses it, and why there’s more to math than rote memorization and bewildering abstraction.

The book was reviewed in the Washington Post. Nancy Szokan says:

You get the feeling that David Reimer must be a pretty entertaining teacher. An associate professor of mathematics at the College of New Jersey, he has taken on the task of explaining ancient math systems by having you use them. And though it’s not easy, he manages to lead you, step by step, through a hieroglyphic based calculation of how many 10-pesu loaves of bread you can make from seven hekat of grain.

Professor Reimer also puts his book to the “Page 99 test” (open your book to page 99 and see a snapshot of the book). Check it out! Prefer to start from the beginning? You can also read the introduction here.

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ENLIGHTENING SYMBOLS

Don’t leave the post just yet, mathematics fans. Our author, Joseph Mazur, wrote a piece for the Guardian this week about the origins of mathematical symbols. His book, Enlightening Symbols, explains the fascinating history behind the development of our mathematical notation system. He shows how symbols were used initially, how one symbol replaced another over time, and how written math was conveyed before and after symbols became widely adopted.

He writes:

A few years ago friends and I were talking about the origins of written music. When the conversation turned to the origins of math symbols, I was surprised to learn that few people knew that almost all maths was written rhetorically before the 16th century, often in metered poetry. Most people think symbols for addition, subtraction or equality had been around long before Euclid wrote his Elements in the first century BCE. No! The original Elements is rhetorical. There are no symbols in Euclid’s works, aside from the letters marking the ends of lines and corners of geometric objects. There are no symbols in any early Arab algebra books. Nor do we find any in early European printed algebra books.

Check out Chapter One of his book.

LIBERALISM

This week, the Economist published a review of a new book by Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. The piece says:

Sometimes it seems as if liberalism is slowly caving in. Western democracies are battered by partisanship and populism. Inequality is undermining social cohesion. Governments are unconvincingly shoring up expensive welfare states that have failed to match their promise. Meanwhile, the running is being made by places such as Turkey, which has an intolerant majority, and China and Russia, where power cannot be contested. “Liberalism” by Edmund Fawcett is not only a gripping piece of intellectual history, it also equips the reader to understand today’s threats—and how they might be withstood.

Check out the review in its entirety. Liberalism was released this spring. In this engrossing history of liberalism–the first in English for many decades–veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

Using a broad idea of liberalism, the book discusses celebrated thinkers from Constant and Mill to Berlin, Hayek, and Rawls, as well as more neglected figures. Its twentieth-century politicians include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Willy Brandt, but also Hoover, Reagan, and Kohl. The story tracks political liberalism from its beginnings in the 1830s to its long, grudging compromise with democracy, through a golden age after 1945 to the present mood of challenge and doubt.

Read the Introduction here.

Edmund Fawcett discusses Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [VIDEO]

Love it or hate it, liberalism is here to stay–and it has a long and fascinating history. Edmund Fawcett explains more about his forthcoming book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in this wonderful video interview with Natalia Nash. How do we define liberalism? Edmund Fawcett explores the underlying ideas that guide the liberal story here:

Learn more about Edmund Fawcett and Liberalism at the Princeton University Press site.