What Liberalism Gets Right — And Wrong

The liberal tradition is a complex body of thought that socialists should grapple with seriously. But today, preserving the gains of liberalism — civil liberties, free speech, and social pluralism — means rejecting the liberal defense of capitalist private property rights.

John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism. (Photo: Oxford University)

Irving Howe was one of the most adept American leftist writers of his generation: able to move seamlessly from commenting on left-wing theory and living wages to reflecting on the finer points of William Faulkner and American literature. One of the founders of Dissent magazine, Howe, who died in 1993 at the age of seventy-two, picked his battles and shook up Left pieties when he thought it was necessary. A striking example is his 1977 piece “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation?” in which Howe weighed in on the everlasting dispute between the two major modernist doctrines.

Howe’s hope that some kind of rapprochement might occur would soon seem overly optimistic, as the neoliberal era took hold and the Keynesian consensus on which he leaned broke apart. Looking back, Howe also conceded too much to liberalism, including its antipathy toward direct democracy.

But in our own era, as we grapple with the rise of the far right, Howe’s writing on the affinity between liberalism and socialism is well worth revisiting.

Can Liberalism and Socialism be Reconciled?

From the outset of “Socialism and Liberalism,” Howe acknowledges a problem: liberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. After running through several definitions — a “current of opinion” in bourgeois society, a “system of ideas” stressing political freedoms, the attempt to humanize industrial capitalism — he observes that however one defines it, liberalism has long been attacked by socialists.

Socialists charged that the classical liberal notion of society as a collection of free and equal competitors was so removed from reality that it bordered on a snide joke. Marxists famously accused liberals of elevating their doctrine into a “suprahistorical abstraction” above petty concerns of power and class, and Karl Marx himself insisted that liberalism must be treated as the ideological “superstructure” of a given historical epoch, largely brought about by changing material and technological conditions and relations.

A democratic socialist himself, Howe endorses many of these critiques. But he insists that socialists have frequently overplayed their hand — underestimating the affinity between liberalism and socialism and overlooking the things that liberalism has gotten right. For instance, in his famous debate with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Marx dismissed the objection that he placed too much faith in centralized power gradually “withering away,” if put to communist purposes. This proved deeply wrong in practice. Howe points out that many liberals might have alerted Marx to this potential since they perceived the problem “with greater depth, because more genuine interest” than socialists.

Writer and Dissent founder Irving Howe. (Jose Mercado / Stanford News Service)

Howe also castigates socialists for straw-manning the liberal vision of society and its supposedly nonexistent theory of power. According to socialists, liberals conceived of society as structured by an atomistic, possessive individualism. Each person was a private rights bearer, interacting with her peers purely on the basis of mutually beneficial exchanges. This blinded liberalism to the effects of economic power and the ways the allegedly minimal liberal state helped entrench capitalism around the globe through imperialism and colonialism.

Howe argues that this conception does a disservice to the nuances of liberal theorizing. Thoughtful classical liberals like John Stuart Mill — one could include Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others — were well aware of these challenges and had specific ways of dealing with them, including protecting basic liberties and political freedoms, fostering pluralism, and imposing checks and balances on state power. Not all were solutions that socialists would prefer, but solutions they were. Simply dismissing them as “ideology,” as though all liberals were naively unaware of systems of power, was historically inaccurate.

On top of that, Howe writes, it fails to recognize how socialists had succeeded in getting liberal thinkers to budge and think through how to mitigate the influence of economic power and ameliorate the conditions of the poor within the liberal tradition. As he puts it:

Almost every sophisticated (and thereby, soon enough, unsophisticated) analysis of society now takes it for granted that politics must be closely related to, and more or less seen as a reflection of, social interest; that society forms a totality in which the various realms of activity, though separable analytically, are intertwined in reality; that no segment of the population can be assumed any longer to be mute or passive, and that there has appeared a major force, the working class, which must be taken into historical account; and that the rationalism of most liberal theory, though not (one hopes) simply to be dismissed, must be complicated by a recognition of motives and ends in social behavior that are much richer, more complicated, and deeply troubling.

The Perils of Not Democratizing

Howe is less persuasive when urging socialists to rethink their affection for direct democracy.

According to Howe, we need to be suspicious of efforts to establish a more unmediated democracy, which both undermines representative institutions and leaves the door open to “demagogic techniques.” Howe’s concerns echo many of the liberal anxieties about mass power and its potential to erode respect for individual rights through sheer weight of numbers.

Howe is right to warn about underestimating this danger, and he is right to criticize democratic socialists for evading it through “vague” rhetorical appeals. Years later, Richard Rorty would bemoan the leftist tendency to reach for theoretical abstractions, like calling for an ever more “radical democracy” without providing details about how some replacement system would operate or avoid the pitfalls of pure majoritarianism. Oftentimes, the response to such questions was simply scorn or denunciation, rather than clear answers.

Nonetheless, the neoliberal era has showcased in dramatic fashion the perils of allowing democracy’s skeptics to steer the ship. With the attack on social democracy and the welfare state, many important programs and institutions designed to limit capitalist power were rolled back while the market itself was increasingly “insulated” from democratic pressures. Neoliberal theorists like Friedrich Hayek and Gary Becker turned out to be far savvier to the dynamics of social power than leftists might have expected.

This process was so successful that many indeed now think of society as little more than a power-free collection of atomized individuals pursuing their purely economic self-interest, perhaps united by a few ordered liberty traditions. Ironically, neoliberalism’s march generated so much anger that precisely the forms of demagogic politics that worried Howe and his liberal counterparts flourished — except on the Right, in the form of what I’ve called “postmodern conservatism.”

At least one of the reasons has long been known to defenders of participatory democracy. It is not enough for citizens to simply have their alleged or real interests defended by representative political parties and associations. Democracy is not just a set of processes or institutions but a way of life. It enables us to take a direct interest in the lives of those around us, generating ties of civic attachment and friendship. As Wendy Brown has observed, when citizens come to feel that their political institutions are little more than managerial committees working for neoliberal elites, a sense of political powerlessness sets in. Add deepening economic inequality, and a noxious stew of resentment can form, easily manipulable by xenophobic populists like Donald Trump.

Given this, and contra Howe, I would say that socialists should insist more than ever that preserving the gains of liberalism (such as civil liberties, free speech, and social pluralism) means pushing for further democratization. That means curbing the power of the courts, scrapping the Electoral College, and experimenting with various forms of popular democracy (not just referendums, which can be terribly flawed, but participatory budgeting, workers’ councils, and citizen-initiated legislation).

The Affinity Between Liberalism and Socialism

In his essay, Howe reminds us that “one of the strengths” of Marxist historiography — what makes it dialectical rather than moralistic — is its recognition that liberalism played an often emancipatory role “on behalf of humanity at large.” All too often, leftist critics have simply condemned liberalism as a malicious ideology to be smashed or, even more perniciously, cribbed from the Right when pillorying the atomism and alienating qualities of liberalism.

As Howe puts it:

The more extreme leftist tendencies, verging on the authoritarian and chiliastic, have been tempted to borrow some of the arguments of the right, especially those releasing contempt for the flaccid moderation of liberalism, its alleged failures to confront painful realities of social life and human nature. But for those socialists who largely accept the premises of a liberal polity, there are other problems, notably the disconcerting fact that the bulk of the philosophical-existential criticism directed against liberalism can be brought to bear with equal cogency against social democracy.

In leftists’ enthusiasm to go beyond liberalism, we can risk circling behind it, adopting strangely conservative arguments about the virtues of communitarian traditionalism, conceiving of existence as little more than various forms of “will to power,” or nostalgically bemoaning the inauthenticity or artificiality of the alienating present. These positions ignore that the historical accomplishment of liberalism was to moderate the rigidities of traditional hierarchies and make way for a society where everyone was, at least in principle, free and equal.

As Marx well knew, classical liberals were wrong to assume we’d gone as far as we should in that regard. But the path is forward, not back.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from Howe’s seminal essay is, as Rorty would put it, his refreshing impurity. Frequently, we either gravitate toward totalizing narratives about the revolutionary transformation of liberalism and capitalism or, disappointed, retreat into skeptical micropolitics of local resistance to structures of oppression that cross the globe.

Howe rejected these binaries, knowing that there was little sense in taking liberal modernity as a complete package that had to be accepted or rejected. Many features of liberal societies were to be admired and even expanded: its recognition that political power should be checked could be extended to the economy; its respect shown toward minority rights should be deepened into a genuine embrace of social and cultural pluralism; its secularism should be a door to inquiring more deeply into people’s existential needs rather than compensating for their alienation through consumption and commodity fetishism.

Above all, Howe’s essay urges us to be more nuanced and historically minded. When we dismiss our opponents’ objections as ideological, it creates the impression that we’re unwilling to face criticisms head on and explain why democratic socialist solutions are right, and can be shown to be right. But in the course of making these arguments, we might also recognize that liberals were right about a few things, too.