David Marquand reviews Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop and Liberalism: the Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett, in TNR:
In its 19th-century heyday, as Fawcett’s history reminds us, liberalism was optimistic, passionate and imbued with strongly held moral convictions. Without using the terms, its proponents were for Burke’s social freedom and for Mill’s vision of human nobility. In France, radicals such as Clemenceau took on the army, an exceptionally reactionary Catholic Church and an ugly wave of anti-Semitism in defense of the unjustly imprisoned Captain Dreyfuss, an Alsatian Jew by origin. In Britain, Gladstone made his extraordinary transformation from High Tory to Liberal messiah because he came to believe that the masses were nobler and more virtuous than the classes.
Twenty-first-century liberalism is a pale shadow of its 19th-century ancestor. Albeit with some honourable exceptions, the passion and optimism have gone. Latter-day Clemenceaus and Gladstones are nowhere to be seen. Burke’s vision of social freedom has virtually disappeared from the liberal repertoire; few now echo Mill’s call for strenuous self-improvement. For the most part, today’s liberals see individuals as free-floating, history-less and untethered social atoms, quite unlike the rooted, flesh-and-blood individuals presupposed by their counterparts of yesteryear. The most obvious result is that, all too often, the robust moral convictions of the past have withered into a querulous self-righteousness, strongly tinged with moral relativism.
Why should this be?