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Liberalism is a holistic moral, economic, and political philosophy defined by an avowed support for freedom from political restrictions on certain individual rights and an equal or fair application of government policy towards citizens. Liberals typically hold that these axioms imply support for free markets, bourgeois democracy, and politically enshrined civic rights such as equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of religion, and the sovereignty of private property. Liberal thought can be best understood by looking at the two important moments in the history of liberalism, the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which produced some of the first examples of liberal manifestos (the Declaration of Independence and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), liberal attacks against existing institutions, and attempts at forming a liberal social and political system. Liberalism is sometimes referred to as classical liberalism to distinguish it from other uses of the term, including social liberalism.

Liberalism is one of the dominant components of the capitalistic ideology that permeates the modern world. The vast majority of extant political tendencies, including social liberalism, progressivism, social conservatism, right-libertarianism, and neoliberalism, are underpinned by the tenets of liberalism. Reactionism, fundamentalism (such as Islamism), however, are fundamentally anti-liberal and therefore are considered far-right.[a] Communists (historically known as socialists) and anarchists define themselves in opposition to the conclusions of liberalism. Marxism is the best-known philosophical alternative; Marxists refer to their ideology as "the science of the working class" and by similar descriptions.[citation needed][1] Karl Marx viewed the communist project to be, in some ways, the true culmination of liberal and Enlightenment thought[citation needed] while also subverting its core tenets in what could be called a dialectical relationship.[citation needed]

Liberal thought arose alongside capitalism as a justification for the ascent of the bourgeoisie against the old aristocratic and feudal order. The growing power of the bourgoeisie enabled liberalism to compete with and eventually replace the mercantilist policies characteristic of the absolutist era, when a mixture of feudal and mercantile components defined the economies of western Europe. As trade restrictions were lifted and free markets were established, capitalism was able for the first time to expand into a dominant mode of production.

John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a philosophy in the late 17th century. Locke replaced divine right with the concept of the consent of the governed, writing that governments which are opposed to "life, liberty, and property" violate the "inalienable" rights of people, rendering them invalid and their overthrow just. Adam Smith developed on this ideology, expounding the idea of rational self-interest and promoting competition with the belief that such a way of thinking benefits society more than deliberate altruism because of the invisible hand — the force which benefits society through such unconscious acts of altruism. Conveniently, this gives an excuse to the wealthy for not going out of their way to aid the poor, as their selfishness is really altruism after all.[citation needed] Smith also developed the notion of laissez-faire, the idea that the government should just protect property and the institution of markets (as through the police and army). However, Smith himself opposed concepts which were later incorporated into liberal thought, such as the right of landlords to collect revenue, the inherent justice and efficiency of the market, and the righteousness of wage labour.

The classical liberalism of authors like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill was arguably liberatory in some ways, such as by providing the ideological tools for the destruction of serfdom, slavery, and absolutism. However, as capitalism grew and gradually overcame its rivals, private interests became stronger and sapped powers from the state, turning the small-scale and decentralized liberal ideal of the 18th century into a new, "privatized" form of oligarchy more powerful than the aristocracies it had overthrown. Thus liberalism has a tendency to decay, as liberty is very often a zero-sum game where restrictions on one mean the freedom of another.[citation needed][clarification needed] Many liberals are unaware of their influence from liberalism, tending to consider their own ideology to be "common sense" or "based on facts". In practice they often end up in support of liberal projects like imperialist wars, gutting of social services, and the regressive distribution of wealth.

In some countries, notably the United States, the term "liberal" refers to a type of social liberalism or progressivism which focuses on resolving social and cultural issues within the framework of classical liberalism itself. These sorts of liberals are not socialists and at most may harbor some sympathy towards their cause or a willingness to cooperate. Liberals tend to be unaware of legitimate critical theory[clarification needed] but may side at times with socialists either in order to form a popular front, or because they have a misconception about the real aims of socialism, making them social democrats or radical liberals. By the historical definition of "liberalism", which is used in most of the world to refer to right-wing or centrist politics, US Republicans and other pro-capitalist rightists are themselves liberals. Though Marxists reject the idea of a liberal reform of capitalism itself, considering reform to be a "bandage" that cannot reconcile the inherent contradictions of capitalism, they accept liberals as useful allies in some cases, such as in the opposition to reactionaries.

After World War II, a class collaborationist economic order was set up in developed countries under pressure from the working class. Declining rates of profit led to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s in response to the perceived failure of neo-Keynesianism to address the stagflation of the time. It sought privatization, the diminishing of union power, and emphasized personal responsibility — a reactionary movement which sought to emulate the class disparities of the Gilded Age, along with its longer workdays, unsafe workplaces, and unequal rights for much of the population. Regulations on commerce, capital movement and labour rights were rolled back and government power was ceded to private entities like banks and corporations. The liberal fanaticism about personal responsibility, based on the notion that the system is fair for everyone, also led to a widespread decrease in funding for public services. This necessarily accompanied the hyper-individualist worldview represented by Margaret Thatcher's statement that "there is no such thing as society". The decay of neoliberalism has produced a considerable amount of backlash against it in the 21st century, leading to the popularity of alternatives on both the left and right.

See also


  1. Fascism, while openly capitalistic, clearly eschews some elements of liberalism and therefore is an important topic of study.


  1. Engels, Friedrich (1880). Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Chapter 3: "Historical Materialism." Available online at the Marxists Internet Archive. "...This is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism."