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  • The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century by Helena Rosenblatt
  • V. Bradley Lewis
ROSENBLATT, Helena. The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018. xii + 348 pp. Cloth, $35.00

Rosenblatt's basic thesis is that contemporary attacks on liberalism have succeeded only because the true history of liberalism has been lost, leaving in its stead a facile version of liberalism that is easy to criticize. That version holds liberalism to be individualistic and focused on rights against the common good. It is a form of hedonism and therefore easy to caricature. To some degree, she holds, this is actually the fault of recent liberals (she blames both Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls for feeding the distorted image). If this simplistic version of liberalism is the true story, then it is possible to reach back and find Locke as the father of the whole thing, as many philosophers and historians have. [End Page 148]

But this, Rosenblatt argues, is not the true story, certainly not the whole story. Her account is similar to Edmund Fawcett's recent history of liberalism (Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, 2nd ed., 2018) in that she emphasizes the roles of French and German thinkers in the history of liberalism, as well as British and American. But for her clearly the French are the most important. After a very brief history of the word itself from the Romans through early modernity—this is mostly about "liberality," since "liberal" was not used as an adjective until later. The original meaning indicates the qualities desirable in a citizen: especially self-control, generosity, and civic-mindedness. Liberality was essentially a moral quality and came to refer to political positions only in the wake of the French Revolution. The postrevolutionary formation of "liberalism" as a political position is credited largely to Constant and Madame de Staël, who aimed to safeguard the achievements of the revolution from both reactionaries and revolutionary extremists and it meant largely what we now call "republicanism," that is, rule of law, civil equality, constitutionalism, representative government, and civic rights, especially of the press and of religion. Like Fawcett, she sees it as in tension with democracy. Constant's 1815 Principes de politique is for Rosenblatt the decisive and formative liberal text (not Locke's Second Treatise). The early liberals were concerned with the civic virtue necessary to make republicanism work and so mainly with the limitations of government and the cultivation of moral sentiments—they were not committed in any way to neoclassical economics.

It was in the mid-nineteenth century that liberals had to confront the social question and the increasing pressure for democratic reform (again, similar to Fawcett's account), and initially they take a rather conservative stance—here Guizot and the July Monarchy are emphasized. Liberals had by now taken an interest in free trade and were protective of social order, so they were increasingly attacked from both the ultramonarchist right and the proto-Marxist left. In this period there is also the foundation of the British liberal party and various liberal parties in Germany. French liberalism suffers something of a crisis after the revolutions of 1848, but regroups and develops in opposition to Napoleon III and achieves its ultimate form during the Third Republic. Here again, Rosenblatt emphasizes the liberal commitment to self-government and the common good against the predations of dictatorship and oligarchy. The two nineteenth-century political figures who most embody the liberal spirit are Lincoln and Gladstone. The great villain of the period is Bismarck, who really strangles a developing German liberalism in the cradle. He goes too far in the Kulturkampf, but the tragic legacy of this is that liberal sympathy for the beginnings of his radical anticlericalism (later they were opposed) made future cooperation with the Catholic Centre Party impossible and one knows what this led to in Weimar. The seventh chapter of the book describes in some detail the split within liberalism over economics that happens in the later nineteenth century between the "ethical economists," who were mostly German and laid the groundwork for...


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