- Hartz Is Dead. Long Live Hartz
What accounts for the staying power of Louis Hartz' The Liberal Tradition in America, a book continually in print since its publication in 1955? A dazzling account of American political ideology written by a brilliant young academic, his career tragically cut short by mental illness, The Liberal Tradition condensed the ideas of a generation of postwar left-wing anticommunist intellectuals. Though its flaws are manifest, it remains on graduate reading lists (in departments of political science at least) and continues to shape scholarly debates—as the volume under review testifies.
Many people lump the so-called consensus historians together, but this is a mistake, for Hartz, unlike many of his contemporaries, was no friend to American liberalism. His argument was a virtuoso performance but simple in conception: The United States was "a liberal society, lacking feudalism and therefore socialism and governed by an irrational Lockianism." Because Americans had been "born equal," no dialectical spark ever ignited History's motor. American history—if one can even call it that—was just a long, essentially uninterrupted unfolding of the liberal seed. Hartz had come not to praise American liberalism, nor even to bury it; he came to lament "the psychic heritage of a nation 'born equal'" whose "colossal liberal absolutism" entailed "the death by atrophy of the philosophic impulse": a crushing intellectual tradition "reducing insight to platitude, transforming philosophy into the complacent after-dinner speech" of "a thousand chamber of commerce epigoni." But liberalism's hegemony in America was not just an aesthetic or intellectual problem for Hartz; it was a political and perhaps even existential one: "the tyrannical force of Lockian sentiment" had exerted so great a "compulsive power" on the United States "that it has posed a threat to liberty itself."1 Such a no-holds-barred assault on U.S. political thought could not have been further from the triumphal, celebratory liberalism of a Daniel Boorstin or the muscular, defensive liberalism of an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Only Richard Hofstadter came close, but even he—scholar of paranoia, social Darwinism, [End Page 319] and reactionary populism—never plunged as deep into the darkness of the American psyche as Hartz.
Collections of essays are notoriously hard to summarize, and this one is no exception. As if to taunt the reviewer, the editor even remarks that these essays "represent a plurality of points of view and do not lend themselves to a definitive conclusion" (p. 267). Indeed. Some themes, and perhaps even a political project, nevertheless emerge from the book's eight chapters.
Mark Hulliung, editor of this volume and historian of liberalism in France and America, opens with an essay that paints Hartz as a New Dealer whose early work "set out to deflate 'the myth of laissez-faire,'" and whose "central preoccupation"—in Hartz' words—was "the role of the state in attaining a free society" (p. 14). The insight provides fascinating perspective into Hartz' critique of American liberalism, particularly given the Cold War context during which he wrote. The excellent essay is marred, however, by its insistence on glorifying its hero by building up an army of "cold war liberals," all of them apparently adherents of simplistic and monolithic ideas, for Hartz to slay. Conceding that Hartz' perspective has severe limitations, including its inattention to race, religion, and ethnicity, Hulliung closes with a Churchillian call-to-arms: "Whether there is and will be a liberal tradition in America," he writes, "is our burden, our calling, and our quest" (p. 46). This quest—to lay the intellectual groundwork for a renewed American liberalism—is what ties these essays together.
It certainly motivates Rogers Smith's essay. Smith is an eminent political scientist whose magisterial account of American political culture challenged Hartz by showing that liberalism was never the sole intellectual tradition in U.S. political culture, but that it always existed alongside several others, not the least of which he calls an "ascriptive" tradition of racial, ethnic, and gender exclusion.2 Although Smith...