Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

by Michael Freeden


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Liberal Languages reinterprets twentieth-century liberalism as a complex set of discourses relating not only to liberty but also to welfare and community. Written by one of the world's leading experts on liberalism and ideological theory, it uses new methods of analyzing ideologies, as well as historical case studies, to present liberalism as a flexible and rich tradition whose influence has extended beyond its conventional boundaries.

Michael Freeden argues that liberalism's collectivist and holistic aspirations, and its sense of change, its self-defined mission as an agent of developing civilization—and not only its deep appreciation of liberty—are central to understanding its arguments. He examines the profound political impact liberalism has made on welfare theory, on conceptions of poverty, on standards of legitimacy, and on democratic practices in the twentieth century. Through a combination of essays, historical case studies, and more theoretical chapters, Freeden investigates the transformations of liberal thought as well as the ideological boundaries they have traversed.

He employs the complex theory of ideological analysis that he developed in previous works to explore in considerable detail the experimental interfaces created between liberalism and neighboring ideologies on the left and the right. The nature of liberal thought allows us to gain a better perspective on the ways ideologies present themselves, Freeden argues, not necessarily as dogmatic and alienated structures, but as that which emanates from the continuous creativity that open societies display.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691116785
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/24/2004
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Michael Freeden is Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford. He is the founding-editor of the Journal of Political Ideologies, and the director of the Centre for Political Ideologies at the University of Oxford.

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Liberal Languages

Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought



The term "liberalism" has always enjoyed a separate existence away from the constricting, formal, and austere world of political concepts and theories. To be liberal evokes generosity, tolerance, compassion, being fired up with the promise of open, unbounded spaces within which the free play of personality can be aired. Yet the clues to liberalism's political nature are not hard to detect. Generosity suggests the dispensing of bounties beyond the call of duty-to prioritise justice as the first liberal virtue is unnecessarily reductionist. Tolerance suggests a flexibility, a movement, a diversity-of ideas, of language, and of conceptual content-that sets liberalism aside from most of its ideological rivals, whose declared aspiration is to finalise their control over the political imagination. Compassion suggests an empathy, a sociability, an altruism, that pays homage to the human networks in which individualism is integrally and beneficially enmeshed, as well as an ardent desire to alleviate human suffering. And openness suggests that the permutations of human conduct and thought are unfathomable and wonderfully unpredictable. Lest we forget,those are liberalism's most remarkable qualities.

Just over a century ago, something significant happened to liberalism that brought those qualities into particular prominence. It underwent a series of transformations that changed the nature of Western politics, while altering the internal balance of liberal political thought itself. Many factors contributed to that change. Among those were the growing reach of democratised politics; the (re)discovery of social relations as partly constituting the individual; the popularisation of evolutionary theory grafted on to theories of progress; a new attentiveness to the psychology of human vitality; the identification of additional barriers to human action and development that required novel conceptions of liberty; and, not least, a reconceptualisation of politics as a responsible, responsive, and facilitating communal activity. That process occurred in a number of cultural locations: in France, in the Antipodes, in the United States, in Italy. But above all it took place in Britain, and Britain-then still a net exporter of political ideas-persevered in its nineteenth-century role as the leading producer and disseminator of cutting-edge liberal theory and of the practices that accompanied such thinking. The chapters in this first section are intended both to illustrate the potential that is always available in liberal action theory and ideology, and to emphasise the actual importance and impact of a body of ideas that grew over time and across space.

That British movement of ideas, known as the "new liberalism," was no chimera or historical oddity, no flash in the pan, no geographical eccentricity. Rather, it teased out of liberalism implicit and underplayed features that created an ideological turn. This juncture lies at the basis of the welfare state-probably the most important domestic institutional achievement of Western political systems in the twentieth century. Two of the central figures of the new liberalism, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse and John Atkinson Hobson-who figure prominently in the following pages-deserve that salience because they epitomise that ideological turn in their fecund writings and in their innovative methodology. We can, indeed, employ them to unlock much of the liberal potential that has become hidden, or has been overlooked, in many of the philosophical liberal discourses that dominated the period between the 1970s and the 1990s. As befits a broadly based intellectual tradition, the two British thinkers are equally important for who they were as for the trend they so brilliantly and efficiently symbolised, for their ability to optimise liberalism's humanist promise, and for the distinctive liberal language they developed. Nonetheless, the story of the new, progressive liberalism of the twentieth century is a far more extensive and subtle one, involving individuals, groups, and institutions that through their synergies moulded an intricate and pervasive modern Weltanschauung, employing a range of liberal languages. And it is a story that should on no account be displaced by the political remoteness, specialised interests, and hypothetical thought-experiments characteristic of recent academic liberal debates.

In addressing the issues raised by those liberal currents and rearticulations of liberal principles, we are inevitably drawn to a profound set of concerns. What is liberalism? How does one go about attempting to answer that most seductive and elusive question? In particular, which of the features that typify the liberal tradition should we take note of from the vantage point of the present? Can we use our knowledge of liberalism, as it has developed over the past century or so, to decode some of its more recent manifestations, as well as to appreciate the complexity of that ideological movement over time and space? And, simply but importantly, where should we look for liberal thinking?


In the broadest sense, three fundamental perspectives on liberalism exist side by side and it may help to set them out.

First, liberalism-as history-can be understood as a narrative about the emergence of a belief system, contextualised and temporalised. That narrative has focused primarily on the liberation of individuals and groups from oppression and discrimination. Second, liberalism-as ideology-can be understood as an actually identifiable configuration of specified political concepts, such as liberty, progress, and individuality, that adopts a distinct pattern, or a series of family resemblances, to which the name "liberal" is designated. Third, liberalism-as philosophy-can be understood as a modelling device in which universal ground rules are drawn up for a just and free society, rules that permit in particular a fair and equal pursuit of the chosen life plan of every person.

These are some of the questions and approaches that the essays in this book, especially in its first part, address. But if Hegel's owl of Minerva has any say in the matter, my own journey through liberalism has been accompanied by a permanent flapping of her wings. There is no end of day at which understanding descends. Comprehension is incremental and insight changes with accruing perspectives. When I first embarked on exploring aspects of the liberal tradition, my aim was specific: to understand what had happened to liberalism between the mature John Stuart Mill-at the time appropriated by liberal minimalists and "self-regarders"-and the Beveridge Report of almost a century later. Even given the impact of the more holistic and other-regarding philosophical idealism that emerged in the post-Millian late nineteenth century, what occurred inside the liberal "black box" to transform a tract such as T. H. Green's Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract of 1881 into a policy document such as the Beveridge Report of 1942-William Beveridge's Social Insurance and Allied Services-still remained something of a mystery. Aside from some general awareness of Hobhouse as a worthy but secondary figure in the modern liberal canon, there were few accounts, and fewer analyses, of the complex movement of liberalism from an assumedly individualistic, even atomistic, theory of human nature and social structure towards something at the heart of welfare-state thinking. What accounted for that leap? Was it a leap, or was it an oversight of both participants and scholars in failing to recognise a more sustained and steady process that had been happening under their eyes? And if so, why did that failure in recognition happen?

Failure to recognize is not tantamount to a failure to get it right. It means that cultural and ideological causes obscure certain interpretations, certain points of view; that they deliberately conceal or underestimate them, or, more accurately and frequently, that the conceptual apparatus for their formulation and recognition is simply unavailable; and that the methodology employed by students of political thought is designed to extract and illuminate certain kinds of information but not others. The study of liberalism suffered from all these characteristics, so that by the mid-twentieth-century research into the liberal tradition had become a highly constricted and stylised approximation of the evidence and perspectives that were potentially available to its students. But there has been another major impediment to the scholarly retrieval, mapping, and appraisal of liberalism. For the past forty years, its philosophical exploration has drifted apart from the thinking, the theorising, and the debates that have constituted liberalism as a broad political movement, both intellectual and political. Gone are the days when a John Stuart Mill could produce a text that would serve as reference point to political leaders as well as philosophers, a text that could be grasped by a reasonably educated individual. The specialized language of late-twentieth-century liberal philosophers, directed mainly at their colleagues rather than at the thinking public, has been accompanied by a partial reconstruction of the liberal enterprise, a reconstruction that runs counter to many-though far from all-of the assumptions, beliefs, and prescriptions that have typified Western liberalism.

The loss is a double one: to historians of ideas and students of ideology because they no longer are as keenly in touch with the critical and reflexive testing of liberal principles; and to political philosophers because they no longer are significantly in touch with the political and cultural constraints that ensure the viable flexibility liberalism requires, as it competes in the real-world arena of policymaking, of reform, of social inspiration, and of political mobilisation. These diverging fields of analysis have to develop a common language and to begin to reconnect, to intersect, and to overlap in their concerns, in order for the members of the liberal family to be recognised as possessing a common ideational pool, however different the actual drawing out of political languages from that pool may be. There are only three modes of going about this. First, one of the discourses can be eliminated-an unlikely as well as a most undesirable possibility. Second, the disparate discourses can be reconciled, if each is prepared to learn the language of the others and make some serious mutual methodological concessions. Third, new discourses may be constructed that offer alternative sites for developing the study of liberalism, or that re-evaluate the existing discourses so that common, hitherto nontransparent, organising motifs and conceptual patterns are unveiled. My own forays into liberal theory, increasingly propelled by frustration with the current nonconversation among the disciplines, have attempted to establish small beachheads, initially for the second mode and more recently for the third.

This book has a second theme, though. It concerns the application of recent theories of ideology, my own included, in order to obtain a clearer view of the components of liberalism and their internal flexibility and substantive indeterminacy. It also assists in comprehending the boundaries of liberalism, their permeability, and the structures that exist outside them. At what points in a discursive field do we begin to move out of the liberal domain? Which conceptual mutations have to occur for us to decide that the configuration of arguments before us is no longer liberal? Finally, it examines some features of ideological morphology I have explored since completing my Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach. That second theme is a minor one in some of the chapters of the first part, whereas the first theme, likewise, is a lesser thread present in most chapters of the second. I shall address the second theme more specifically in a chapter linking the two parts.


The historical study of liberalism has become increasingly and healthily diversified over the past quarter-century. Some of it still follows canonical convention in setting out the qualitative criteria of the liberal political thinking it is prepared to take seriously, even as it has moved to extend somewhat the range of theorists that form part of the classical liberal canon. An example of that approach is that of Stefan Collini, who channelled the 1960s-1970s Cambridge focus on high politics into the scrutiny of high-minded political thinking among a broader cross-section of the liberal intelligentsia, while insisting that less structured or less sophisticated forms of political thought could not be subject to the same standards of analysis. Other branches of historical research have illuminated the populist sources of issues that intellectuals later raised to the levels of properly articulated discourses. Thus, some liberal conceptions of communal identity and fraternity could be traced to working-class cultures that percolated into mainstream political thinking and that pressed on liberalism a need to develop greater social inclusiveness. An example of that is the work of Eugenio Biagini, who has also argued that continuities with earlier, "older" liberal strands should not be underestimated. Further recent developments have yet to figure prominently: the continental, German-led development of conceptual history, investigating competing and changing vocabularies, and linguistic and conceptual adaptability in crucial historical bridging periods, has so far had little resonance in the study of liberalism. Similar issues have arisen through the work of J. G. A. Pocock on political language and vocabulary-again insufficiently cashed out in existing research on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on which the essays in this book focus. Ultimately, it has to be said, liberalism has a far broader multidisciplinary genealogy than that assumed by canon-led historians of political thought: politics, psychology, sociology, management, biology. It is not just a philosophy but a sophisticated cultural compound. And its sources are manifold: liberalism is a discourse that surfaces at countless levels of written and oral expression.

When I first started work on The New Liberalism, conceptual history was in its infancy, the focus on authorial intentions had just commenced, while discourse analysis and the linguistic turn had hardly begun to be applied to the study of political thought. I was convinced that the activity of creating socially significant and historically important political theory was a far broader one than what was represented through the traditional apostolic successions of the "great thinkers." My aim was to extend the range of subject matter that came under the legitimate scrutiny of political theory and to examine thinking that was located closer to the coal face of political activity. In so doing I tried to apply some of the analytical questions that concerned political theorists to the archival materials at the disposal of historians.

By the time Liberalism Divided had been completed, I was beginning to make the first inroads into the approach I believed was needed to understand and decipher the political thinking produced by broader groups of intellectuals and activists. The opening sections of that book adumbrate some general thoughts about the forms in which that thinking appears to us. Curiously, some historians urged me to drop those methodological musings, which a decade later had been transformed into my theory of ideological structure (which I later termed ideological morphology in order to distinguish between that theory and the various currents under the general heading of "structuralism").

Ideologies and Political Theory enabled me to revisit British new liberalism-while exploring other forms of liberalism as well as different ideological families-and re-examine the ideas I had already studied. This time, however, the emphasis was on their decontestations and their configurations, and on investigating how specific conceptual arrangements created determinate fields of meaning from the raw material available to the formulators of liberalism-indeed, of political thought in general. An interest in methodology no longer seemed to me-as it still does to quite a few scholars-merely to be the overindulgent preliminary to talking about what really matters. Rather, it was the key to deciphering the secrets contained in written texts and oral utterances. It offered solutions to the central question I now knew had to be asked: what has to hold for this sentence, that paragraph, this narrative, to make sense to its author, and what has to hold for it to make sense to its consumers, be they the intended audiences at the time, or the audiences of the future? How are the sense and the meaning that should interest students of politics produced, formed, and extracted from the thoughts and practices available to a society? Which options are opened and which foreclosed, both for political thought and for political practices, when a particular cultural map is superimposed on a virtual infinity of logical conceptual possibilities?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix



CHAPTER ONE: Twentieth-Century Liberal Thought: Development or Transformation? 19

CHAPTER TWO: Liberal Community: An Essay in Retrieval 38

CHAPTER THREE: The Concept of Poverty and Progressive Liberalism 60

CHAPTER FOUR: Layers of Legitimacy: Consent, Dissent, and Power in Left-Liberal Languages 78

CHAPTER FIVE: J.A. Hobson as a Political Theorist 94

CHAPTER SIX: Hobson's Evolving Conceptions of Human Nature 109



CHAPTER SEVEN: Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity 144

CHAPTER EIGHT: True Blood or False Genealogy: New Labour and British Social Democratic Thought 173

CHAPTER NINE: The Ideology of New Labour 190

CHAPTER TEN: Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology? 204

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Political Theory and the Environment: Nurturing a Sustainable Relationship 225

CHAPTER TWELVE: Practising Ideology and Ideological Practices 236

Index 263

What People are Saying About This

Mark Bevir

Michael Freeden has made a significant contribution to the field, his scholarship is exemplary and he writes well. The chapters here are among the best he has ever written.
Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley

From the Publisher

"Michael Freeden has made a significant contribution to the field, his scholarship is exemplary and he writes well. The chapters here are among the best he has ever written."—Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley

"Freeden's book offers a fresh, critical take on standard political philosophy and commentary."—Ross Harrison, Cambridge University

Ross Harrison

Freeden's book offers a fresh, critical take on standard political philosophy and commentary.
Ross Harrison, Cambridge University

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