••• the liberal rarely needs to be ashamed of the
realities created in his name as the socialist has to
be much of the time.
(Ralf Dahrendorf <1»
Liberal writers, at least in the last forty years, have made
a speciality of claiming that, unlike almost all other doctrines, and certainly unlike socialism and communism, liberalism is quintessentially non-doctrinaire and, indeed,
anti-doctrinaire. 'The essence of the liberal outlook,'
Bertrand Russell once wrote, ‘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. This is the way in which opinions are held in
science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in
theology.’ The title of this article implies, and is intended to imply, that this claim is, in some respects at
least, untrue, and is, as a generalisation, misleading and
historically inaccurate. Liberalism has been, and in some of
its forms still is, quite as ‘doctrinaire’ as the rival ideologies which liberals so freely denounce.
To my mind this is a very obvious and simple point to
make. Yet it does not appear to get stated very often.
There has been a tendency to take liberalism, and liberals,
at their own evaluation. The liberals’ own account of their
own history and ideas has commanded a wide and uncritical
acceptance. Given this, it may not be entirely superfluous
to go over this ground once again, and remind ourselves of
some aspects of the history and character of liberalism
which the liberals themselves have, understandably enough,
tended to sweep under the carpet. Or, to change the metaphor, let us unlock a few cupboards and parade one or two
of the hidden skeletons of liberalism across the spotlit
stage of the history of ideas.
The liberal self-image
First we must recall the seif-image of liberalism as it has
been presented in the period of the Cold War and of socalled ‘totalitarianism’, and particularly as it was developed in the decade and a half between 1945 and 1960. One
major source of this self-image was Karl Popper’s excessively influential book, The Open Society and its Enemies,
which appeared in 1945 – the ideal moment for it to make
the maximum impact. Popper found the fundamental conflict between liberal reason and totalitarian dogmatism
everywhere, even in classical Athens, where it was
Socrates ‘who taught the lesson that we must have faith in
human reason, but at the same time beware of dogmatism,’
while his pupil Plato epitomised the anti-rational, dogmatic
spirit of totalitarianism .
One distinguished person who was, for a time, much
influenced by Popper was Bertrand Russell. The short essay
of his already quoted ‘Philosophy and Politics’ – and to
some extent the whole collection in which it appeared,
Unpopular Essays (1950) – is a classic, condensed expression
of this version of liberalism:
The Liberal creed, in practice, is one of live-andlet-live, of toleration and freedom so far as public
order permits, of moderation and absence of fanaticism in political programmes •
..• only through a revival of Liberal tentativeness
and tolerance can our world survive.
At about the same time (1949) similar sentiments were
being expressed by Isaiah Berlin in the journal Foreign
What the age calls for is not (as we are so often
told) more faith, or stronger leadership, or more
scientific organisation. Rather is it the opposite less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism…. What is required is a less mechanical, less
fanatical application of general principles, however
rational or righteous, •••
The vocabulary of denigration that constantly recurs in
these writings of the late 1940s and 1950s, the period of
the frostiest Cold War, is familiar: dogmatic, doctrinaire,
fanatical, Messianic, chiliastic, ideological ••• and so on.
Here are two more examples:
The less, therefore, man clogs the free play of his
mind with political doctrine and dogma, the better
for his thinking ••. what shams and disasters political ideologies are apt to be, we surely have had
opportuni ty to learn •••
•.• empiricism is the ally of freedom, and the doctrinaire spirit is the friend of totalitarianism.
The only difference is that these last two quotations come,
not from liberal writers, but conservative ones, Sir Lewis
Namier and J.L. Talmon, both also writing in the 1950s.
Liberalism, we have repeatedly been told, stands for a
rational, open-minded, ‘tentative’ approach; for flexibility
and empiricism (respect for the facts), as opposed to dogmatism, fanaticism and ideological certainty. It is these
latter attitudes, embodied in the dominant ideologies of the
twentieth century, which are supposed to lie at the root of
all the worst cruelties and tragedies of our time. Liberalism, far from being rendered obsolete by these tougher
creeds, has become more relevant than ever. Probably this
was most famously and concisely expressed by E.M.
Forster, in his credo of 1939, ‘What I Believe’. This began
‘I do not believe in Belief’, but ended by rejecting the
feeling of shame he had sometimes felt at being ‘an individualist and a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling
beneath him ••• ‘ . It was Forster too who summed up
much of the anti-ideological case in three words: ‘Programmes mean pogroms’ – this in an essay on Orwell
written in 1950 .
Those who interpret liberalism as a creed of scepticism, as
opposed to commitment, have not had any difficulty in discovering a distinguished line of ancestors. Sometimes, as
with Popper, it is traced back, rather implausibly, as far as
Democritus and Socrates. Another writer called in Peter
Abelard as a witness to the liberal faith. But the less anachronistic lineages usually begin with such figures as Erasmus and Montaigne, and others who stood aside from the
religious conflicts of the early modern period. Locke is
usually invoked, but from among the many Enlightenment
thinkers who might qualify, it is the unrepresentatively
conservative figure of Montesquieu who is singled out for
praise, rather than Diderot or Voltaire or Condorcet. From
the nineteenth century, Benjamin Constant, de Tocqueville,
Alexander Herzen, the younger Mill and, sometimes, Lord
Acton, are chosen. Other names could be added to this list.
But it is at once clear that this is a highly selective,
not to say stingy, list of liberal luminaries. Where are
Milton, Voltaire, Beccaria, Jefferson, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Shelley, Goya, Byron, Mazzini, T.H. Green,
Hobhouse, Russell and so many others? What has happened
to the creators of liberal economics, Adam Smith, Malthus
and David Ricardo. The answer is that the history of liberalism was being quietly rewritten to exclude from its
annals any person or writer who might have been, or indisputably was guilty of displaying any of those characteristics so deplored by Berlin, Popper, Forster, Albert Camus
and the rest: fanaticism, dedication, Messianic ardour, and
For if there is one generalisation that can safely be
made about such varied figures as Milton, Voltaire, Paine,
Shelley, Jefferson and Mazzini, it is that they were anything but ‘tentative’ or ‘sceptical’ in their basic political
commitments. Voltaire’s crusade against superstition and
the cruelty and torture sanctioned by organised religion
was anything but ‘tentative’. Those many liberals who in
the early nineteenth century dedicated themselves to the
causes of Greek or Italian or Polish independence did so
with an ardour which would no doubt appal Sir Isaiah
Berlin. And even Bertrand Russell, in his political commit. ments, did not of course conform to his own prescriptions
of caution, tentativeness and an instant readiness to
abandon views and beliefs.
So whatever may be true of contemporary liberalism, it
is manifestly not true that liberals have always displayed
those qualities—ot scepticism and moderation which are now
held to be fundamental to liberalism.
Classical liberal economics
The overall tradition of liberal thought and practice can
hardly be considered without reference to what is often
thought of as liberalism’s major intellectual achievement:
classical political economy from Adam Smith to Malthus,
Ricardo and the younger Mill. And Liberal economics supplies a second, and very different, counter-example to the
recent image of liberalism.
Of the great classical economists Adam Smith was the
least ideological – using that term in a derogatory sense.
That is to say, Smith was the most searching, the most
complex, the most honest and detached of the classical
economists. What was made of his theory is another matter.
But if we leave aside Smith, then there are few groups who
can be more appropriately described as dogmatic, doctrinaire and inflexible than the chief proponents of liberal political economy, both as theory and practice, in the first
half of the nineteenth century. Nor were theory and practice set wide apart. Many of the leading theorists of liberal economics were deeply involved in policy creation in
It is a favourite ploy of apologists on behalf of this or
that influential thinker or writer to claim that their hero is
guiltless of the various unsavoury distortions, interpretations and applications of their theories devised by their
proclaimed followers and disciples. Marx was not responsible for Marxism, Darwin would have disowned social Darwinism, and so on. It is certainly important that we distinguish between what a particular person thought and what
others think or assume that that person thought, between
Marx and Marxism, Darwin and Darwinism, etc. But this
process can be carried too far – to the. point where it
sometimes seems that the world is divided between blamelessly enlightened original thinkers, on the one hand, and
the mass of their crass, unscrupulous, so-called followers
on the other.
This has certainly happened with the liberaf economists, on whose behalf a whole school of apologists has
grown up in recent decades. If the more enthusiastic of
these apologists were to be believed, we would have to
conclude that not one of the major liberal economists was
‘really’ committed to anything so crude as laissez-faire or
free trade. All of them were ‘really’ flexible pragmatists,
ready to allow or support interventionism whenever a good
case could be made out for it .
Reading this type of apologetics, one is inclined to suspect, a priori, that it is all a little too good to be true.
And so it turns out to be in this particular case. It was not
just the simplifying politicians and propagandists who were
responsible for the horrors and cruelties that resulted from
the implementation of market principles. The theorists
themselves were involved, supporting and encouraging the
politicians, offering advice, and helping to devise new policies and legislation.
The New Poor Law of 1834
One notorious product of this involvement was the New
Poor Law of 1834. Whatever judgement is made on this
piece of legislation and its implementation, it certainly
cannot be said that it was the politicians and civil servants
who were exclusively responsible for either . On the
contrary, two of its principal architects were prominent
theorists and intellectuals, Edwin Chadwick and Nassau
Senior, and Chad wick became secretary to the Poor Law
Commission which had the responsibility for putting the
new act into effect. Chadwick described the law as ‘the
first great piece of legislation based upon scientific or
economical principles’; while Lord Brougham, defending the
bill in parliament, remarked pityingly of the originators of
the Old Poor Law that ‘they could not foresee that a
Mal thus would arise to enlighten mankind upon the important branch of science – they knew not the true principle
upon which to frame a preventative check to the unlimited
increase of the people’ .
Nor can it be claimed that the harshness of which poor
people complained as soon as the new law was put into
operation was a mere by-product of the policy, or the responsibility of those usually described in this sort of context
as ‘over-zealous’ administrators – a classic euphemism.
Harshness was indispensable to the whole project. This is
abundantly clear from the Report itself. Workhouses, said
the Report, should be ‘objects of terror’. They corn mended
the policy which had been adopted at Cookham in Berkshire, where the labourer found ‘that the parish is the
hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster he can find’.
They also recommended, not a minimum, but a maximum
diet for workhouse inmates, ‘leaving to the local officers
the liberty of reducing it below the maximum if they can
safely do so’ .
dogma, in defiance of the evidence of human need,
in English history.
That makes my point precisely. The liberal economists were
gUilty of exactly the kind of moral offence for which they
so regularly and righteously condemn the ‘ideological’
movements of today: that of sacrificing the happiness and
well-being of individuals for the sake of, or in the name of,
a theory or a principle.
One notorious, much hated, aspect of the new workhouses was the strict segregation of the sexes. This was a
measure inspired, as Brougham implied, by the very influential theory of Malthus. Everything should be done to prevent the poor from ‘breeding’, since this would only multiply the numbers of the poor and destitute. Once again, it is
implausible to claim that the New Poor Law represents a
distortion or a crudification of Malthus’s own views. In
fact Malthus’s only objection might have been that it was
too generous a piece of legislation, since he believed that
all forms of poor relief ought to be abolished. When
Malthus appeared before the House of Commons committee
on Emigration in 1827, he suggested that parishes should
cease to pay the rent of paupers, and urged that taxation
should be used to discourage the building of new cottages.
Landlords who pulled down empty cottages were corn mended . Malthus, far from being a theoretician standing
aloof from the practical consequences drawn from his own
theory, was actively involved in drawing those conclusions
himself. Marx was right when he remarked that ‘The hatred
of the English working class against Malthus ••• is therefore
entirely justified’ .
Keynes, who described Malthus’s Essay on the Principle
of Population as being ‘profoundly in the English tradition
of humane science’, was also at pains to point out that
Malthus himself was kindly and well-lik~d, and not ‘the
cruel and vicious monster of pamphleteering controversy’
. This is, of course, entirely beside the point. It is not
his personal characteristics which are at issue, but the
principles and policies which he advocated. Malthus, like
Chadwick, was not a tiger, but a doctrinaire .of exactly the
kind condemned by contemporary liberals. Even John Stuart
Mill, often held up to us as a paradigm of the open-minced
liberal intellectual, was an enthusiastic supporter of
Malthus in his youth, and a consistent supporter of the New
Poor Law. As late as the mid-1840s, when its harshness had
been repeatedly exposed in well-known scandals, he was
still denouncing its opponents as ‘sentimental’ .
It is hardly necessary to say much about the consequences of the putting into practice of this openly avowed
policy of ‘terror’. The horror and hatred which these new
institutions immediately aroused is indicated by the fact
that within three years Dickens made it the object of his
characteristically fierce and humane satire in his second
novel, Oliver Twist. Satire is often closer to truth than it
suits us to admit, and the editor of the Penguin edition of
the novel assures us that Dickens ‘does not greatly exaggerate’ the meagreness of the diet which prompted the
famous demand for more . The other point to notice is
Dickens’ constant use of terms like ‘philosopher’ and ‘philosophical’ to describe the guardians of the workhouse and
others associated with its administration. He had grasped
that this law was the product of a theory – a point taken
up two years later by Thomas Carlyle in his essay on
Chartism, in which he wrote of the Commissioners: ‘They
are not tigers; they are men filled with an idea of a
theory ••• ‘ .
There is no gap between the pr inciples of classical
liberal economics and the practice of the New Poor Law.
The one was a direct deduction from the other. And the
consequences were appalling. Edward Thompson’s comment
is perfectly apt:
The Act of 1834, and its subsequent administration
by men like Chadwick and Kay, was perhaps the
most sustained attempt to impose an ideological
British liberals and the Irish famine
One further instance of the impact of liberal economics
deserves mention: British responses to the Irish famine of
the mid-1840s. In general those responses were dictated,
not by the elementary human concern to rescue people
from death by starvation or disease but, by a concern to
abide by the principles of liberal market economics. In so
far as human concern did modify this ‘principled’ economic
response, this was the responsibility of the Tory administration of Sir Robert Peel, which did make some effort to
provide cheap food and a public works programme. But
once the Whigs came into office in 1846, even these quite
modest measures were abandoned.
Wheat, oats and barley were actually exported from
Ireland in these years of famine. This did not bother Sir
Charles Trevelyan, the Treasury civil servant with responsibility for policy in Ireland. ‘Do not encourage the idea of
prohibiting exports,’ he wrote to a British official in
Dublin, ‘perfect Free Trade is the right course.’ As for
importing food into Ireland, Lord John Russell, the Prime
Minister, said ‘We think it far better to leave the supplying
of the people to private enterprise and the ordinary trade.’
And so – no positive measures were taken, and the Irish
people starved to death – about a million and a half of
them in four years or so. It was the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who wrote to Russell in 1849: ‘I don’t think
there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard
such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or
coldly persist in a policy of extermination.’ Sensible, moderate, balanced British readers, who think that the Irish
tend to exaggerate what they have suffered at British
hands, should note that last phrase ‘a policy of extermination’, used by the senior British administrator at the time
of the famine .
Doubtless the Whigs did not intend that the Irish should
starve to death. But they were sure that they knew what
the best way of responding to the tragedy was, and that
was to leave its remedy to the operation of market forces.
‘The more I see of government interference,’ wrote Sir
Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘the less I am
disposed. to trust to it, and I have no faith in anything but
private capital employed under individual charge’ . It
is an attitude which has recently been extensively revived
– once again with cruel consequences.
In addition there was the baleful influence of the
Malthusian approach, which made it quite natural for an
economist like Torrens to talk about Ireland’s ‘redundant
population’, and for Nassau Senior to remark, according to
Benjamin Jowett, that ‘he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kW more than a million people, and that
would be scarcely enough to do much good’. A British
official in Ireland, Sir Randolph Routh, wrote to Trevelyan
in 1846, ‘You cannot answer the cry of want by a quotation from political economy.’ But that is precisely what
Russell, Wood, Trevelyan and the Whig government as a
whole did do. As Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote in her magnificent study, The Great Hunger: ‘The influence of laissez
faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate’ . This influence, this rigid adherence to an economic doctrine, is the only thing that
renders the behaviour of the British administration at all
Bertrand Russell, in the essay already referred to,
wrote that ‘it is seldom justifiable to embark on any policy
on the ground that, though harmful in the present, it will
. be beneficial in the long run’; and that ’empiricist liberalism ••• is the only philosophy that can be adopted by a man
who ••• desires human happiness more than the prevalence
of this or that party or creed’ . Russell might have
recalled the role played by his own grandfather (in whose
house he was brought up) between 1846 and 1850. It clearly
transgressed both these principles. But it was not that Lord
John Russell’s conduct in this case, or in that of his support for the New Poor Law, fell short of his own principles. On the contrary, it showed the reverse: a rigid
attachment to doctrine and principle despite their manifestly dreadful results. Here, in fact, was liberalism living
up to its own principles. But they were not the empiricist
principles outlined by Bertrand Russell.
Why is this doctrinaire strain within liberalism not more
generally recognised? The basic reason, as was suggested
earlier, is surely that the history and interpretation of liberalism have been largely in the hands of the liberals themselves. It is not that they have deliberately suppressed episodes which are an embarrassment to them – though this
may have sometimes happened. Two explanations are possible. Either they have been simply the prisoners of their
own ideology – and Russell’s forgetfulness about his own
grandfather’s role over Ireland must surely be an example
of this. Or else they have been engaged in a large-scale
redefinition of liberalism, its history and tradi tion(s), which
has meant that those individuals and episodes not conforming to this conception are banished from the re-defined
The definition of what constitutes liberalism is, of
course, to some extent an open matter, and it will change
as historical perspectives change. Nevertheless, historical
Jacts do themselves set some, limits to what is legitimate.
It must be relevant, though not in itself decisive, that
many of those tacitly omitted from the current liberal
canon certainly believed themselves to be liberals. It is
also relevant to consider what was thought of at the time
as being liberalism – although, equally, the fact that the
term ‘liberalism’ did not acquire its modern political meaning until around 1820 should not deter us from applying it
to earlier episodes and persons. It makes no sense to deny
that Locke, to take an obvious example, had something to
do with liberalism as it is commonly understood. Therefore
a definition, explicit or implicit, of liberalism which contrives to exclude the whole tradition of liberal economics,
both theory and practice, must be regarded as unacceptable. The fact that that tradition displayed characteristics
which are now regarded as illiberal is no doubt embarrassing, but ultimately irrelevant.
We cannot reasonably
demand that an ideology with a long history should at all
stages of that history conform to what is now conceived of
as the ideal model. That such an ideology should, on occasions, assume a dogmatic and inflexible shape ought not to
~urprise or even much dismay us.
For any ideology at its most dynamic is bound, for
better or worse, to be in some ways doctrinaire and in
some ways inflexible. And its tendency to ifly in the face
of the facts’ is not as unambiguously deplorable as the
empiricist supposes. On the one hand, it may well represent
an attempt to force reality into patterns dictated by
theories held a priori, without regard either to fact or to
human costs. British policy during the Irish famine clearly
falls into this category. On the other hand, it may also
mean simply a brave refusal to accept the world as it is, a
refusal to accept present facts as immutable – which is, of
course, the root of any radical or revolutionary project.
The two are, no doubt, not so very far from one another.
Where a radical determination to change the world becomes
a brutal indifference to reality and suffering is not always
easy to determine. But both characteristics are likely to be
present in any doctrine or ideology when that movement of
ideas is at its most dynamic; and liberalism is no exception
to that rule.
When liberals believed most strongly in their own
values and principles, it was liberalism which appeared to
its conservative opponents as dogmatic and anti-empirical.
Twentieth-century liberals do not share that degree of conviction. They are full of self-doubt. But that is not a good
reason for failing to recognise that liberalism has not always had that character, or for rewriting the history of
liberalism to make it conform to this twentieth-century
How non-doctrinaire is contemporary liberalism?
Whatever may be true of contemporary liberalism, liberalism in the past, then, has not always had the empirical,
sceptical character which is often claimed to be essential
to liberalism itself. We must now look a little more closely
at twentieth-century liberalism. Is it true that contemporary liberalism, by contrast with those other creeds of Left
and Right, is flexible and undogmatic? And even if that is
the case, does that necessarily make it more humane than
It is certainly the case that many liberals in our century have identified liberalism with hesitancy, uncertainty,
tentativeness. This is particularly common among ‘literary’
liberals. E.M. Forster has already been cited. He could
point also to Cyril Connolly, in The Unquiet Grave, to
Angus Wilson’s first novel, Hemlock and After, and to
Lionel Trilling’s only novel, The Middle of the Journey. In
both novels a contrast is made between a sensitive, indecisive liberal and some intendedly representative figures
of the Left, who are insensitive and even arrogant to the
point of obtuseness. Connolly’s book first appeared in 1944,
Trilling’s novel was published in 1947 and Hemlock and
After in 1952. A study of the culture of the 1940s and
1950s would reveal a great concentration of works expressive of this vein of liberalism.
In so far as liberalism has become more sceptical about
political action of any kind, more hostile to general ideas
and principles, it has, of course, moved closer to what has
traditionally been a conservative position. This is illustrated by the striking identity, or closeness, of the views
quoted earlier, of Russell, Foster and Berlin on the one
hand, and the conservatives Namier and Talmon on the
other. It was in no way accidental that Talmon’s best
known book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, another product of the early 1950s, should have been taken
into the canon of liberal literature of that period, despite
the author’s avowed conservatism.
Yet this Cold War liberalism, which was officially so
dedicated to humane and flexible empiricism, was not notable for the empiricism or flexibility of its response to communism, or to Leftism more generally – which was subsumed
under the heading of ‘communist sympathies’, one of the
smear terms of that period. For evidence of this, one would
need only to consult the pages of Encounter, the monthly
magazine founded with the support of CIA funds in 1953.
One test was the response of liberal intellectuals to the
anti-communist witch hunt usually known as McCarthyism.
Some liberals – Arthur Schlesinger Jr would be one example
– came out of this test well. But many did not. Karl Wittfogel, author of another fashionable text of that period,
Oriental Despotism (1957), named M.I. Finley as a former
Communist. Finley denied it, but lost his job at Rutgers
University nonetheless. Sidney Hook, Arthur O. Lovejoy and
Leslie Fiedler – the latter being Encounter’s chosen commentator on McCarthy and the trial and execution of the
‘Rosenbergs – all agreed that ‘proven communists’ should
not be allowed to teach, on the grounds that, as Lovejoy
put it, ‘a member of the Communist Party •.• has engaged
his intellect to servility, and therefore professionally disqualified from performing his functions as a scholar and a
teacher’. The Presidents of Harvard and Yale Universities
at that time agreed with this view. Hook, Irving Kristol,
then an editor of Encounter, and Daniel BelT were among
those liberals who argued that Communists were not en14
titled to the same civil rights as the rest of the population, on the grounds that, as Kristol put it, Communism was
not an ‘opinion’ like any other, but ‘a fanatical conspiracy’
At a more theoretical level, we find that this Cold War
liberalism adheres very firmly to the traditional liberal
hierarchy of values. That is to say, regimes are judged, not
by reference to the progress or otherwise that they make
in improving the lot of the mass of the peple, but by the
degree of freedom they permit – freedom ‘being defined in
the traditional liberal way, as political and legal freedom.
Thus Cuba after the 1959 revolution – ‘that imprisoned
island’, as the liberal hero, President John Kennedy, called
it – was strongly condemned in the pages of Encounter for
its infringements upon civil and human rights; but no interest at all was shown in the achievements of the new
regime, the improvements in health or the spread of literacy, for example. That still is the characteristic liberal
mode of judgement upon left-wing or revolutionary regimes,
and it is not self-evidently a less dogmatic, or more empirical mode than other kinds of judgements which might be
Hot-war liberalism: Vietnam
These kinds of attitudes issued ultimately in the American
war on Vietnam between 1965 and 1975. Anti-Communism
is, of course, by no means the exclusive property of liberals, but the description of Vietnam as ‘a liberal’s war’
is justified for two reasons. Firstly, the war was run
by liberal presidents, until 1968, supported and encouraged
by liberal intellectuals within and outside the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations. Secondly, the war was constantly
justified in liberal terms, as a war for freedom, against
communist tyranny, and so forth.
Among the opponents of the war there were a number
of longstanding proponents of an essentially conservative
realpolitik such as Hans Morgenthau and W;:jlter Lippmann.
Their opposition was based, not on radical principles but,
on the realistic belief that the war was unwinnable, a costly mistake. They were proved right, and they may be said
to represent the genuine, traditional kind of near-cynical
pragmatism; while the liberal supporters of the war displayed a dogmatism quite at variance with their proclaimed
hostility to ideology and ideological politics. Barrington
Moore’s comment is apt:
The calm confidence – or ecstasy – of the’ political
leader who sends masses of humanity to their death
for the sake of a shining distant future is indeed
abominable. Equally abominable is the complacency
of those liberals willing to rain terror from the
skies while they prate about the virtues of pragmatic gradualism.
But there is in any case a more fundamental paradox
which is raised in an especially acute form by the example
of war. War, whether justified or not, is an extreme and
extremely clear example of a situation in which present
and tangible benefits, including present lives, are being
sacrificed for the sake of some supposedly greater or more
distant good or benefit. Everyone who is not a pacifist
accepts that such sacrifices can on occasion be necessary,
and so justified. What is odd, and finally quite unconvincing, about the contemporary liberal position is that the
suggestion that liberalism is the only approach to politics
which does not condone, and does not require such sacrifices. Liberals are not generally pacifists, and this fact
alone belies this claim.
The truth is that any politics, however humane in purpose, unavoidably involves calculations about what sacrifices of present happiness and welfare are necessary for
the sake of expected or hoped-for future benefits. Isaiah
Berlin has quoted with approval a passage of Bentham
which he asserts is ‘at the heart of the empirical, as
against the metaphysical, view of politics’:
can it be conceived that there are men so absurd as
to ••• prefer the man who is not to him who is; to
torment the living, under pretence of promoting the
happiness of them who are not born, and who may
never be born?
The simple answer to Bentham and Berlin is that societies
collectively, and people individually, are so absurd all the
time. The continuity of any society depends upon making
provision for future generations, and this will almost certainly involve imposing sacrifices, or voluntarily making
sacrifices, in the present for the sake 'of them who are not
born, and who may never be born'. Liberals themselves
accept this in practice, if not in theory. Berlin's own
answer to a questionnaire about the Vietnam war sent out
to writers illustrates this very well:
It is frightful that Vietnamese villages should be
bombed and the innocent continuously killed. But it
seems to me even more dreadful to abandon people
to massacre by their enemies. How is one to guarantee that this will not happen? Or that a precipitate
and total American withdrawal would not cause
other South-east Asian governments to be intimi-
dated into knuckling under to regimes which many
of their citizens would surely hate?
In stating his dilemma in this way, Berlin shows that in
reality and in detail he is well aware that the 'empirical'
view of politics, just like the ‘metaphysical’, can involve
the torment of the living for future goals whose realisation
is inevi tably uncertain.
One of two conclusions seems unavoidable. Either liberalism is less empirical and more doctrinaire than it claims
to be; or else the empirical approach is not automatically
or self-evidently more humane than the alternative supposedly doctrinaire and ideological approaches.
What is beyond dispute is that liberalism was, in some
of its nineteenth-century forms, quite as dogmatic as any
twentieth-century ideology. But here we come full circle.
‘You cannot answer the cry of want by a quotation from
political economy.’ No? The revival of liberal economics
presided over, intellectually by Hayek and Milton Friedman,
and politically by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,
has displayed those characteristics of obtuse and heartless
dogmatism which we noticed in relation to its earlier incarnation. This form of liberalism remains as rigidly doctrinaire as it always was.
This splendidly compacent claim comes from Rolf Dahrendorf, Life
Chances (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), p. ix.
-Bertrand Russell, ‘Philosophy and Politics’, in Unpopular Essays (Allen
& Unwin, 1950, 1968 edition), p. 21.
K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Rout ledge and Kegan
Paul, 1945, 1962 edition), Vol. I, p. 185.
Russell, op. cit., pp. 21 and 23.
Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969),
Sir Lewis Namier, ‘Human Nature in Politics’, The Listener, 24
J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952, Sphere
Books, 1970 edi tion), p. 4.
E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (Edward Arnold 1951,
Penguin edition 1965), pp. 75 and 83.
ibid., p. 70.
For some examples, see A. W. Coats (ed.), The Classical Economists
and Economic Policy (Methuen, 1971). And see my The Rise and
Decline of Western Liberalism (Black well, 1984), pp. 250-51.
See Robert Pearson and Geraint Williams, Political Thought and
Public Policy in the Nineteenth Century (Longman, 1984), pp. 31-35.
See Arblaster, op. cit., p. 255, and Raymond G. Cowherd, Political
Economists and the English Poor Laws (Ohio State University Press,
S.G. and E.O.A. Checkland (eds.), The Poor Law Report of 1834
(Penguin, 1974), pp. 277, 337 and 419.
Oliver Twist (Penguin, 1966), Appendix A, p. 483.
Thomas Cariyle, Chartism in Selected Writings, ed. Alan Shelston
(Penguin, 1971), p. 164.
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963,
Penguin edi tion 1968), p. 295.
See Cowherd, op. cit., pp. 161-62.
Ronald L. Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus (Lawrence and
Wishart, 1953), p. 123.
J.M. Keynes, Essays in Biogoraphy (Macmillan, 1972), pp. 86 and 92.
I have summarised Mill’s views on the New Poor Law in op. cit., p.
Most of this material is taken from Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great
Hunger (Ham ish Hamilton, 1962), pp. 125 and 381, and also R.D.
Collison Black, Economic Thought and the Irish Question 1817-1870
(Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 117.
Black, op. cit., p. 39.
Woodham-Smith, op. cit., pp. 375-76 and 54.
Russell, op. cit., pp. 24 and 25.
For liberal complicity with McCarthyism, see Arblaster, op. cit., pp.
313-15. Also Christopher Lasch, ‘The Cultural Cold War’, in The
Agony of the American Left (Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), pp. 82-83; and
David Caute, The Great Fear (Seeker & Warburg, 1978), pp. 405 and
26 I take the phrase from Murray Kempton’s contribution to a revealing
symposium, ‘Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited’, in Commentary,
27 Barrington Moore, Jr., Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery
(AlIen Lane, 1972), p. 27.
28 Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p. 171.
29 Cecil Woolf and John Bagguley (eds.), Authors Take Sides on Vietnam
(Peter Owen, 1967), pp. 60-61.
For the purposes of this essay I have borrowed shamelessly from my own
recent book on liberalism, but the materials used for the particular argument of this essay are arranged quite differently in the book.
“Any obsolescent material?”