Liberalism isn't the problem, progressivism is

Liberals and liberalism are being given a hard time in the wake of Donald Trump's victory and Britain's Leave vote in the EU referendum. But is it really liberalism and the liberal outlook which is at stake here and which really stands accused? I am not so sure.

Largely, this is about the way words, terms and labels mean different things to different people and get mixed up in interpretation. On the most basic level, the term 'liberal' means something very different in common American parlance from what it does in the classical British or European sense - complicated by how the American version has worked its way into our consciousness and practice on this side of the pond.

In America, being 'liberal' is largely interchangeable with being 'progressive', which is an historical term that aligns us with a version of historical progress, so that our politics are part of a general progression of life from not-so-good to a lot better. That seems fine and good, except that it claims knowledge of this progression. There is a form of absolute knowledge at work here, since it assumes we know where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going - and that where we're going is a good thing. Anyone who gets in the way of this progression is therefore ignorant, irrational and going against history and all that is right in the world. Their wrongness is not a simple judgement call, but an absolute judgement, based on knowledge - of the 'facts', 'the evidence' or 'expert opinion' you might say.

This way of thinking and being is antagonistic to classical liberal conceptions of freedom and tolerance and scepticism. After all, why should we allow people to speak and act in ways that obstruct the rational and righteous progression of history? If we know, fundamentally, surely they must be stopped and prevented? Tolerance stops here, for to tolerate wrongness like this would mean tolerating the intolerable. Freedom stops here, since having wrong opinions is obstructing the freedom of people to live in that better world we know is coming.

This way of thinking is endemic in our public life and has been for some time. One of Stalin's monikers was 'Leader of Progressive Mankind', but seemingly everyone in the mainstream of politics is progressive nowadays. The way our elites talk about free markets, economic growth and globalisation is steeped in the language of progress - though there is never any utopia over the horizon as there was in the original Marxist version. It's just the habit we are in and that almost all our institutions are integrated into.

In musing upon such things, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott said back in the day that, "What may now be meant by the word 'liberal' is anyone's guess."

He saw so-called liberals enforcing a world - their world - upon the rest of the world through forms of rationalism that claimed to know and know best. Nothing much has changed in that respect.

Liberalism certainly has its problems and issues, not least how it can be led astray like this. But I tend to prefer the version expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell here:

“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

Needless to say, Russell's conception is a world away from the liberalism that people are defending and attacking in the wake of Brexit and Trump's victory. Being liberal is not about holding back from dogmatism now, it is about being dogmatic - and attacking those who do not share the same dogmatism. It is not about being cautious with knowledge, it is about claiming absolute knowledge of the state we've come from, the state we're in and the state that will come. In this sense, liberalism has become its opposite.

Certainly, liberalism in its classical sense is much too limited to provide us with absolute guidance about what we should do in our personal lives or in political life - and neither should we expect it to. But it should at least guide us towards avoiding absolutism, towards respecting the views of others who disagree with us, towards tolerance and understanding the limits of our own understanding - towards humility.

That is why I still count myself as a liberal and as someone of the liberal-left. I am liberal as well as of the left. This may be a very different liberal-left to the form that has been dominant in our public life and that is now getting a kicking, but I won't be giving up this version of liberalism any time soon.

Phantasy Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams


  1. Perhaps slightly tangentially, holding your beliefs "tentatively", as Russell put it, can be better for your well-being. Psychologist James Oliver recently put it like this, "But what's going to solve it [your bad mood] is truly grasping you're making a big mistake in having really believed that you know what's best"

  2. Excellent post. There's a very funny meditation in Orwell's 'A Clergyman's Daughter' where Dorothy is disturbed by a couple who's Christian faith is, she decides, too strong. I have increasingly felt that way about large sections of the left, the certainty that they are right is very alarming and the levels of intolerance frightening. The key phrase which sets alarm bells ringing is 'The right side of history'. It translates as 'The means justifies the end' and we all know where that gets you. As to what genuine liberal leftists do now, I have no idea, I just know I feel politically homeless

  3. A very helpful piece,like so much on this blog, which I've only just discovered. Keep up the good work, Ben. The intolerance and oversimplification of events displayed by many "progressives" in the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump's victory is breathtaking. So that thoughtful people have to be continually on their guard about saying the wrong thing in polite company. The point about HOW we hold our opinions is vital and a great antidote to groupthnk. As is the Vaughan Williams. Thanks again.

  4. Thanks, that sums up my way of thinking. I still count myself as liberal left but I'm repelled by the frightening certainties that I hear from people who think themselves liberal. C S Lewis put it very well: I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

    And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme — whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence — the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication


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