The agonies of liberalism

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It is striking the extent to which many liberals have seen themselves as figures on the margins of politics. This is partly an ideological issue. Of all the great ‘isms’ of the modern age, liberalism has had neither the historical certainty of the two great totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, nor the reassuring hierarchical logic of conservatism. Most liberals have agonised about how much humans can achieve and have repeatedly stressed the fallibility of rational or democratic solutions, at least in comparison with more revolutionary ideologies like communism. But liberals’ sense of living on the margins is also a consequence of the context in which liberalism was born. In Europe, the spectre of the French Revolution – and, later, the Bolshevik Revolution – gave liberalism a specific flavour. Liberals were often keen on reform, but they always feared social upheaval. Time and again, liberals found themselves in power only to lose control of the pace of social change. In the worst cases – 1815, 1848 or 1917 spring to mind – this put the liberal cause back by generations. For much of modern European history, to be a liberal was to be in a perpetual state of siege.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalContemporary European History
Early online date29 Sept 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Sept 2016


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