The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, by Stephen Holmes, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 330 pages, $29.95
Political Liberalism, by John Rawls, New York: Columbia University Press, 401 pages, $29.95
Liberalism bears a heavy stigma in the popular mind today. It suffices merely to invoke liberal—with leaden emphasis on the first syllable—to produce the image of woolly-headed political incompetence embodied in Michael Dukakis or George McGovern. It is significant that the chief political aim of Bill Clinton is to avoid being perceived as a "liberal."
This is a great disservice to the grand tradition of liberalism rightly understood (or "classical liberalism"), the tradition of individual liberty, contract, and limited government. What people typically mean today when they use liberal derisively is better understood as statist. The statist impulse in Western liberal democracies derives from at least two problems. Statism can be seen as the internal degradation of liberalism through egalitarianism; the equal protection of individual rights gives way to the desire to ensure the equal enjoyment of rights through expanded state power. Statism can also be seen as the weak, inarticulate, concessionary response of liberal regimes to Marxist-based moralism.
Liberalism in the older sense of the term deserves a defense and rehabilitation. Libertarianism may be said to be the project of defending and rescuing liberalism from its modern statist impulses, and it is arguably the only such project on the scene with any vigor. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Stephen Holmes mars his otherwise helpful Anatomy of Antiliberalism with a few stray animadversions on libertarianism. These could be safely overlooked, except that these disparagements (one of which appears on the last page) might suggest to the discerning reader that would-be defenders of liberalism have a blind spot for statism, which paves the way for the projects of radical antiliberals.
It would be mistaken, though, to suggest that Holmes has written an unworthy book. To the contrary, Holmes's book is most useful in sharpening the question: What are we defending liberalism from? While libertarians focus on the visible and advancing edge of ideological statism (much of which derives from the internal corruption of liberalism), Holmes has chosen to focus on an antiliberal strain typically neglected by libertarians. His target is the intellectual antiliberalism that has as its unifying theme what might be called Non-Marxist Pre-Modernism. This kind of antiliberalism is the province of neither the left nor the right, but instead thrives nicely at both extremes. Even though non-Marxist antiliberalism is found at both ends of the spectrum, there are common threads running through both varieties.
Holmes examines six key figures and 10 fallacies of antiliberal thought. His figures are Joseph de Maistre, Carl Schmitt, and Leo Strauss on the right, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, and Roberto Unger on the left. Holmes draws a distinction between "hard" antiliberals on the right and "soft" antiliberals on the left.
Hard antiliberals reject liberalism in favor of a higher individualism within some kind of aristocratic regime. Hard antiliberals scorn both equality and the supposed unmanly softness of a peaceful liberal society. Holmes notes the incongruity of this depiction of the inherent weakness of liberal society with the fact of the British Empire's flourishing under liberal parliamentary democracy. (The triumph of liberal democracies in two world wars against theoretically stronger antiliberal regimes can also be adduced as evidence that the antiliberal portrait of the character of liberal society is overdrawn, and the examples of Lincoln and Churchill show that liberal democracies can produce vigorous leadership when necessary.)
Soft antiliberals reject liberalism, though not democracy or equality, in favor of a vaguely defined communitarianism. Their prescription for the best regime is less specific than that of the hard antiliberals. Their sentimental attacks on the way liberalism erodes warm and fuzzy community life is usually followed up with a suggestion no bolder than tightening the pornography laws a bit.
Holmes does not mince words in discussing his targets, and he finds slightly contemptible the intellectual Manicheanism of antiliberal scholarship. He charges Strauss, for instance, with "bookworm heroism" for suggesting that the "crisis of the West" will be resolved through close readings of ancient texts. MacIntyre, Holmes writes, "uses the Greek polis as a large paddle for spanking modern man." And Lasch's books are summed up as glum mood pieces.
Holmes has chosen serious targets, rather than the easily dismissed reactionary conservatives who disparage Enlightenment rationality in toto and seek after "a better guide than reason." Although one may quarrel about whether Holmes has been entirely fair in his spirited treatments of each thinker, he has done a valuable service in taking up a group whose influence (with the exception of de Maistre) is increasing. Holmes's close reading strips away the familiar sound bites from most of these thinkers and reveals glaring defects in their arguments. The soft antiliberals in particular, Holmes persuasively argues, are guilty of schizophrenic self-contradiction, always shrinking back from any serious proposal to overturn liberalism or liberal institutions. "A high-pitched jeremiad fizzles into a tiptoed retreat," he writes.
The most helpful part of the book is the second half, where Holmes dissects and refutes 10 fallacies common to antiliberal thought. Chesterton remarked that heresy is not outright untruth but rather a small part of truth gone mad. Most of the antiliberal fallacies Holmes identifies are aspects of liberal thought driven to an unreasonable extreme. Liberalism, according to these fallacies, is: hostile to "community," responsible for the "atomization" of the individual, indifferent to the public good, and corrosive of authority. It sacrifices the public realm to privacy, places excessive reliance on the anthropology of "economic man," establishes a theory of rights that leads to selfishness, generates moral skepticism, and places excessive reliance on reason.
Most of these fallacies, Holmes argues, arise partly because antiliberals tend to be bad historians of liberal thought, removing liberalism and liberal ideas from their proper context. Hence, each of these fallacies tends to be manifested in Holmes's 10th and most encompassing fallacy, "antonym substitution." This is a form of intellectual bait-and-switch in which antiliberals contrast an old liberal principle with a modern problem or imperative that the principle was not originally proposed in relation to. Property rights, for example, are held up as a badge of selfishness as opposed to the idea of charity, thus wrenching property from its context as a liberal bulwark against destitution and arbitrary power. This acute analysis reveals the brutal truth that even Holmes is too reserved to speak plainly: Much antiliberal criticism is aimed at straw men and is animated by a nostalgia for a moral-spiritual-communitarian society that never was.
Holmes reserves his most superb scorn for the communitarians. "Communitarians invest this word [community] with redemptive significance," Holmes writes. "When we hear it, all our critical faculties are meant to fall asleep. In the vocabulary of these antiliberals, 'community' is used as an anesthetic, and amnesiac, and aphrodisiac." But Holmes thinks that in addition to being theoretically weak, communitarianism is not politically dangerous—a debatable conclusion. Compulsory national service, to take a leading communitarian idea on the scene today, may not be the leading edge of jackbooted fascism, but any nation that can contemplate such a policy in the absence of some argument from necessity is clearly confused about its liberal principles.
Holmes's critique also leaves little room for acknowledging some of the points about which antiliberals are right (though usually for the wrong reasons). Alasdair MacIntyre is surely right about the disarray of contemporary moral discourse. Holmes makes a short but able defense of liberalism against the charge that it is responsible for the moral skepticism of our time, but the reader is left with the sense that Holmes may doubt the seriousness of the issue beyond the bounds of liberalism's relation to it.
And his relentless scorn for the communitarians also causes him to miss a couple of opportunities. The real enemy of inertial or traditional community structures is not liberalism per se but affluence. And it is far from certain that affluent commercial society experiences fewer genuine expressions of communal life than pre-liberal societies. Social policy, especially welfare and Social Security, has weakened some communal and familial bonds. But it is also probably true that, compared to pre-liberal society, there are today far more vital expressions of spontaneous community as well as individual charity. This practical or empirical concern may seem inappropriate for Holmes's intellectual analysis, but it is probably necessary. The vague longing for "community" that expresses itself in various romanticisms is a genuine aspect of human nature that is both politically significant and not susceptible to rational containment alone.
Finally, it ought to be noted that the liberalism and antiliberalism portrayed in this book both seem to overlook that fact that America is not simply a liberal regime; it was also founded to be a republican regime. The founding era's liberal republicans thought that self-government depended on the moral character of its citizens and also thought that Enlightenment rationality and liberalism were compatible with republicanism and a moderate concern for individual virtue. Contemporary liberalism has forgotten this, and that is part of the reason for its decay into statism and for the opening on the left to the ahistorical nostrums of "civic republicanism."
To the extent that very modern thought has discarded the classical view of human nature, as Strauss and MacIntyre argue, both liberalism and republicanism are undermined. To suggest that modern liberalism may have a blind spot about this is not to grant license for brigades of communitarian virtuecrats. It should suggest, however, that one of the things most needful for rehabilitating liberalism is a candid reaffirmation of human nature, which is under withering attack from feminism, deconstructionism, and other fashionable ideologies.
Indeed, it is the collapse of the intellectual consensus about the first principles of liberalism—a general consensus that serves as a practical substitute for unanimous consent to the original social contract—under the assault of radical ideology that constitutes the "crisis" of liberalism. John Rawls's Political Liberalism aims to develop a least common denominator above which liberalism and liberal institutions may flourish. But Political Liberalism turns out to be mostly a restatement of or series of footnotes to Rawls's 1971 blockbuster, A Theory of Justice.
Readers of that earlier work will recall Rawls's two principles of justice: First, each person has an equal claim to certain basic rights—an arrangement we would all choose in an "original position" (supposedly equivalent to the "state of nature" of old liberals) behind a "veil of ignorance" that prevents any knowledge of our particular circumstances or interests; and second, inequalities are only just if they benefit the least advantaged members of society. There have been countless critiques of Rawls from all quarters, which need not be rehearsed in the context of his present revisions.
Instead, a good starting point for thinking about this book is the often remarked upon abstraction of Rawls's style and approach. This may not stem purely from his academic orientation. In fact, Rawls's ginger and indirect approach to critical views contrasts sharply with fellow academic Holmes's spirited and at times slashing style. On close reading it appears that Rawls is chiefly concerned with the antiliberalism of the radical left, but he is also worried about giving offense to this vocal segment of our intellectual elites. (In the introduction, Rawls seeks to reassure these potential critics that although this book doesn't cover it, "the alleged difficulties in discussing problems of gender and the family can be overcome.")
This interpretation becomes more plausible when one considers that Rawls's famous second principle rests upon an a priori acceptance of egalitarianism. His tiny rampart against leveling is inadequate to the passions of the day. When removed from abstraction and juxtaposed against the context of current political life, Rawls's project is seen as trying to moderate, accommodate, or appease radical egalitarianism.
Rawls means to be a friend of liberalism against the extremes of antiliberal thought, but the hard left is not likely to accept his appeasement. The aim of defending and reviving liberalism is better sustained through a book such as Thomas Pangle's The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Post-Modern Age, which directly confronts radical ideology and seeks to make classical liberalism and republicanism into viable modern alternatives. (Likewise, a nice companion volume to Holmes is Paul Rahe's massive Republics Ancient and Modern, which, while situating America as a liberal republican regime midway between ancient and modern, makes the case that the ancient "communities" that some antiliberals pine for weren't so hotsy-totsy after all.)
The end of the Cold War, Holmes points out, has not necessarily left the world in the hands of liberals, Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding. Ideological antiliberalism of the kind Holmes tracks is important to recognize, but much more immediately troubling is the kind of weak Rawlsian liberalism that plays into the hands of statists and antiliberals alike. To paraphrase the old cliché, with liberals like that, who needs antiliberals?
Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Ill-Liberalism".