Liberalism and Its Enemies

by Glenn Tinder
THE ANATOMY OF ANTILIBERALISM by Stephen Holmes, Harvard University Press, $29.95.
LIBERALISM CAN BE defined as the philosophy and practice of liberty, with liberty understood not only as protection against undue interference with an individual’s life but also in terms of representative government, constitutionalism, rule of law, and other such institutions commonly found in the polities of North America and Western Europe. Liberalism began to develop as long ago as the sixth century B.C., in ancient Greece, and is arguably the main strand in the political tradition of the West. One of the principal themes advanced in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism is that opposition to liberalism is also a tradition. It is represented by figures such as Joseph de Maistre, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Christopher Lasch. The author’s purpose is both to define the antiliberal tradition and to defend liberalism against it. The result is a book that sheds a good deal of light on the idea of liberty, mainly through the author’s vigorous and well-informed polemic, but also partly through inadvertent disclosures by the author—a liberal—of limitations of the liberal mind.
It is noteworthy that the antiliberal tradition is defined by Holmes in a way that groups together two very different political types: violent antiliberals, such as fascists, and what we might call “liberal” antiliberals—writers who attack liberalism vet accept the established framework of constitutional government in the West. Holmes says explicitly that he is not insinuating that the liberal antiliberals are quasi-fascists. Why, then, classify them with fascist and other violent antiliberals? The answer, I think, is that Holmes is struck first of all by the common principles that bind together the two types of antiliberals; he is struck also by the failure, as he sees it, of liberal antiliberals to take note of or set themselves apart from their sinister comrades. “ They make no clarifying effort,” he writes, “to explain their differences from fascist philosophers whose rhetoric is often indistinguishable from their own.”
Defined in this comprehensive fashion, then, what is antiliberalism? As a tradition, it contains certain typical elements. It is often pessimistic in its view of human nature and history, and attacks liberalism for naive illusions concerning human goodness and the power of reason. Antiliberalism is in many instances aristocratic, in one way or another, and criticizes the egalitarian and democratic aspects of liberalism. Typically, antiliberals emphasize the social nature of human beings and construe liberalism as “atomistic”—that is, as tending to regard each individual as a separate, selfcontained universe. Finally, antiliberalism emphasizes the absoluteness of values, and sometimes asserts the reality of that supreme value God, and accordingly brings liberalism under judgment for its supposed moral relativism and its secularism. Antiliberals do not stand for any single social and political ideal, but typically they affirm tradition, authority, and “community,” which is apt to be equated with some particular social unit such as the nation. They may favor an established religion, or a clerisy such as the philosophical elite that was for Leo Strauss the purpose and center of the social order. Almost always they wish to provide moral discipline and sensitivity with some kind of force and standing in the public realm.
Antiliberalism is not unattractive. Practically everyone in a society as morally and spiritually chaotic as present-day America will find congenial ideas in the antiliberal tradition. Hence the importance of the author’s defense of liberalism—for it is liberal convictions and institutions that confine our chaos within humane bounds. Were liberalism to be lost, our present disorder and confusion would be turned into an irretrievable historical disaster. One of the main things Stephen Holmes (who teaches political theory at the University of Chicago) intends to do in his book, and does do very well, is to show that the great liberal writers, such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, were acute and well-balanced thinkers who seldom made the kind of simple errors with which the antiliberals charge them. They were not, for example, so extreme in their individualism as to ignore or deny the social nature of human beings.
The chief value of The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, however, lies not in what the author does to set straight the historical record of liberal thought but rather in his clarification of certain principles concerning the character and meaning of liberty. On our grasp of these may well depend the saving of the liberal structure of the American polity.
One of these principles, for example, concerns the relationship of liberty and class. Among the oldest and most powerful prejudices against liberalism is the one embodied in the Marxist canard that, as the British socialist Harold Laski pur it, liberalism is “the philosophy of a business civilization.” Such an interpretation reduces values of universal import to matters of class interest. Holmes effectively disposes of this prejudice when he observes that “the liberal campaign against arbitrary arrest, preventive detention, and savage punishments cannot be reduced to a bourgeois strategy for maximizing profits.” Similar points can be made concerning other liberal goals. Religious tolerance, personal liberty, and the franchise are of value not merely to members of the bourgeoisie but to all members of the human race. Some of the most tragic developments of this century might not have occurred had key leaders in the Marxist world had some sense of the universality of liberal ideals.
Another important principle skillfully dealt with in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism has to do with the political implications of pessimism. One of the most notable characteristics of the antiliberals is their tendency to criticize liberals for their unrealistic optimism yet in constructing their own social and political ideals to become optimists themselves. This happens, for example, when they treat tradition as a storehouse of wisdom rather than of prejudice (after all, slavery in the United States was a rather ancient and widely honored tradition at the time it was abolished in 1865). Their selective optimism is evident when they affirm the wisdom and moral purity of a particular elite or class, as do Strauss in the case of philosophers and Lasch in his discussion of the lower middle class. Holmes neatly brings out the more balanced understanding inherent in liberalism with his observation that “liberals are not optimists but universalistic pessimists: not the governed alone, but also the governors need to be ruled.”
One of the most significant liberal principles is established in Holmes’s statement that “most liberals valued freedom of thought not because they were moral skeptics but, on the contrary, because they saw such freedom as an indispensable condition for discovering the moral truth.” Critics of liberalism often assume that because in a liberal society all moral issues are open to public debate, and no particular moral code has official status, liberalism involves the abandonment of all moral principles. Holmes’s statement shows that this is not so. No doubt liberals sometimes have assumed that issues open to debate are inherently irresolvable and that all moral principles are therefore in doubt. But such an inference is not logically necessary. On the contrary, intellectual liberty may be based on the premise that moral truth can be discovered and securely established only through uninhibited inquiry. Moreover, it may be joined with the proposition that intellectual liberty cannot be significant unless it is a road to moral truth; otherwise it is reduced to an exchange of idle opinions. Granted, free speech in America today is used mainly for purveying advertising and entertainment and for pressing group and party interests. Nevertheless, moral inquiry does occur; the abortion controversy is evidence of this. And the idea that freedom is a condition for discovering moral truth is not insignificant from either a theoretical or a practical point of view.
Among the liberal principles clarified by Holmes, none is more important than that of individualism, which is strongly defended. Such a defense is particularly welcome in the present intellectual climate. The notion that human beings can be fully human only as members of cohesive social groups, although at least as ancient as the philosophy of Plato, has in our time reached the status of a cliché. It has been influentially represented by writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah. It is commonly accompanied by animadversions on the supposedly blind and insensitive way in which liberal individualists block the satisfaction of one of humanity’s deepest needs—the need for “community.” One truth ignored in such communitarian critiques of liberalism is that many cohesive social groups are quite evil, and if individualism consists in assuring that individuals are able to stand apart from such groups, then individualism is quite a good thing. Drawing a phrase from Michael Sandel, a leading critic of liberal individualism, Holmes observes that members of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as of groups more widely admired, have “a commonality of shared self-understanding.” And further along he speaks ironically of racism as a “robust denial of atomistic individualism.”
Also commonly ignored in communitarian critiques of liberal individualism is that individualism implies the denial only of coerced relationships, not of all relationships whatever. One of the chief errors of the antiliberals lies in the assumption that individualism is inherently antisocial, whereas the truth is that “individualism can involve a heightened concern for others [Holmes’s emphasis] as individuals rather than as members of ascriptive groups.” In other words, the core idea of individualism does not have to be that all true life is private and exclusive. It can be rather that all true relationships are formed in freedom.
This principle has an important bearing on the subject of civil liberties. Criticisms of liberal individualism are typically accompanied by attacks on the preoccupation of liberals with individual rights, which supposedly leads to selfishness, to uncooperative social relationships, and to a neglect of interpersonal obligations. Here again antiliberals blind themselves to the true logic of liberty. Without individual rights there is no security for lives that are unselfish, cooperative, and morally resolute, because lives of this sort very often clash with the demands of racial, national, and other social groups. In a totalitarian state a dissident—like Andrei Sakharov—is rarely if ever a selfish individualist. As Holmes puts it, with characteristic succinctness, “Liberal rights . . . are facilitative. They make possible all kinds of social relations.”
THESE ARE ONLY examples of the liberal principles discussed in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism. The book is rich in insights and ideas, all of which contribute to the overwhelming impression the reader is likely to derive from the book: that liberalism is not weak and one-sided but rather takes into account, or at least is able to take into account, a wide range of fundamental human needs and desires. The liberalism sketched by Holmes is not easily relativized in either radical or conservative terms.
A serious weakness in Holmes’s argument, however, is that liberalism in its traditional forms emerges from his book—contrary, perhaps, to his own convictions—as a philosophy and practice without any serious drawbacks whatever. This falsifies not only liberalism but also the situation of human beings in history. As the great liberal writer Isaiah Berlin has eloquently argued, no one set of social and political institutions can allow for the satisfaction of all legitimate aspirations, because these aspirations clash. Thus personal freedom may inescapably involve economic insecurity, and religious tolerance may lead unavoidably to spiritual uncertainty. Destroying established inequalities—however desirable in itself—will in most circumstances weaken authority and attenuate social relationships. Berlin’s writings demonstrate that a defense of liberalism can be based on such incongruities, for they imply a degree of social imperfection that renders liberty imperative. Nevertheless, they also imply that even a liberal society will incorporate substantial imperfections.
Holmes’s tendency to idealize liberalism is manifested in a chapter on “antonym substitution.” Here it is charged that antiliberals regularly set aside the counterconcepts that liberals had in mind in setting forth liberal concepts and replace them with their own counterconcepts. For example, liberals stressed instrumental values as a way of opposing not moral values but “wastefulness and status display.” Antiliberals distort liberalism by contrasting instrumental with moral attitudes and by ignoring the fact that liberal instrumentalism was a historical expedient rather than a philosophical absolute. As another example, the liberal emphasis on the subjectivity (Holmes encloses the word in quotation marks) of value judgments was intended not to deny altogether the possibility of objective value judgments, as antiliberals maintain in another act of antonym substitution, but only to “deflate moral imperialisms.” But mightn’t Holmes better have admitted that the great liberal writers, if only under the pressure of intellectual debate, occasionally were one-sided? Aren’t there weaknesses of some sort in a philosophy that stands secure only by allowing its defenders to choose their own antonyms rather than by accepting responsibility for whatever antonyms are inherent in its major concepts? It seems fair to say that Holmes does not fully face up to the imbalances present at least in traditional liberalism, if not in liberalism abstracted from all shifting historical circumstances—in liberalism ideally defined. The liberalism suggested in Holmes’s defense thus lacks the hard, realistic edge one feels in Isaiah Berlin’s liberalism.
As these comments indicate, Holmes does not give antiliberals a sympathetic reading. He is fair in his treatment of them, but far from long-suffering. He does not follow the practice strongly recommended by one of the greatest of liberal writers, John Stuart Mill: that of taking care to enter fully into the minds of intellectual opponents in order to discover the element of truth that is apt to be contained even in opinions that arc on the whole erroneous. It might be argued that the greatest weakness in Holmes’s book derives from this failure. He becomes so engaged in countering antiliberals at every turn that he never stands back to ask what is bothering them basically. Thus antiliberalism often appears in his book as a sheer gratuitous misreading of liberalism, which is yet oddly widespread.
Nevertheless, underneath antiliberal polemics, as misdirected as they may be on the level of explicit argumentation, one can see a source of discontent that cannot be disposed of as readily as Holmes disposes of explicit antiliberal errors. This is the feeling that liberalism is somehow spiritually deficient. This feeling can assume diverse forms —that liberalism is lacking in heroic grandeur, in religious awe, in moral depth, or in tragic sensitivity. It is dry and practical and worldly. It is somehow small-minded. Antiliberals are very diverse in their political orientations. It might be said, however, that most of them are in search of glory and see liberalism as inglorious, in thought and in action alike.
If such is an accurate characterization of the gravamen of antiliberal charges against liberalism, then it does not quite suffice to refute each of those charges singly, however effectively this may be done. It needs to be shown either that “glory” is not a legitimate common aim or that liberalism is not inglorious. Holmes does not manifest very much sensitivity to this issue, and his book contains comments that suggest he is unaware of it. He remarks, for example, that liberals admired the useful not only as opposed to the wasteful and “the merely traditional” but also as opposed to the sacred, as though this would be the attitude of any sensible person. In the same paragraph he casually observes that monks and aristocrats were “regularly derided” by liberals because they “never contributed anything useful [Holmes’s emphasis] to society”—a statement one might characterize as at best too simple. In another passage he grants that some liberals “identified good and bad with bodily pleasure and pain” but excuses this on the grounds—presumably unexceptionable to anyone of normal sentiments and intelligence—that most of them were merely “hoping to channel intellectual energies away from sterile theological disputes and toward discovering medical and economic responses to the unrelenting hardships of famine and plague.” (It may be noted simply that theologians, although much concerned with some of the ultimate questions of human existence, are no more favorably inclined toward sterile theological disputes, or toward famine and plague, than anyone else.) In passages such as these, and in his general neglect of the deepest sources of antiliberal discontent, Holmes displays some of the very liberal qualities—the dry practicality and worldliness, the unconcern with spiritual nuances—that disturb and anger antiliberals. It may be said, accordingly, that although he deals very effectively with the anatomy of antiliberalism, he pays too little attention to its spirit.
IT IS OF COURSE the anatomy, rather than the spirit, of antiliberalism that is Holmes’s explicit topic. Nevertheless, the spiritual deficiencies of liberalism are of urgent concern to us today. This is because the inglorious character of liberalism is not merely an impression that a handful of intellectuals have derived from reading the works of Locke and Mill. It is, rather, a glaring fact of life in the most powerful of liberal nations.
More than a century and a half ago, in his study of democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States.” It seems unlikely that Tocqueville would appraise American liberty more positively were he able to return today and observe the impact on it of technology, industrialization, material abundance, and television. Surely one of the most significant realities of our time is that the life of free peoples contains little to stir awe or admiration in the mind of an impartial observer. Modern liberty is decidedly inglorious.
Must it be so? Is human nature so deeply inclined toward the shallow and the base that in all times and circumstances liberty will give rise to patterns of existence that are “petty” and “insipid”? Will liberty always be displayed mainly in lives “crowded with paltry interests”? Is liberalism in practice bound to leave people for whom the word “glory" stands for something of importance feeling that humanity has been diminished?
If so, the rebellion against liberalism, which (as shown in Nazism and communism) can assume forms far more terrifying and virulent than the writings Holmes discusses, will be mounted recurrently and will no doubt sometimes succeed. And if liberalism is bound to be inglorious, one may even wonder, in spite of the decencies liberalism safeguards, why the rebellion shouldn’t succeed. “High abstracted man alone” may be, as Herman Melville said, “a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe.” Such a man may, however, be unfit for liberty and may, wherever liberty is established, come to conform with Melville’s characterization of “mankind in the mass”: “a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.”
The author of The Anatomy of Antiliberalism deals admirably with the issues that he does address; one cannot help wishing he had addressed this issue, too.