Liberalism: Illusions and Realities

by Reinhold Niebuhr | June 24, 1970

This article was originally printed on July 4, 1955

The spate of books on conservatism and liberalism in America has resulted in debates about the respective merits of these allegedly opposing political creeds in which a great deal of semantic confusion is manifest. Mr. Clinton Rossiter in his Conservatism in America has accurately defined the conservative mood in our nation as a combination of nationalistic preferences and a passion for the economics of lassez-faire, which is to say, that our conservatism in domestic politics is the old liberalism of the Manchester School. Mr. Russell Kirk in his Conservative Mind seems to assume that there is some authentic conservatism in the mere desire to preserve the status quo of the American paradise; and he rather uncritically seeks to relate this American conservatism with a British conservatism which is rooted in the aristocratic tradition and has none of Kirk's prejudice against the Welfare State, and with the rather pathetic aristocratic tradition of our own Southland, as expounded by Randolph and Calhoun. This Southern tradition was pathetic because it was but a remnant of an old aristocratic society in a nation which had no conscious relations with the European feudal past, and because it was a form of aristocracy based upon chattel slavery and was naturally destroyed with the institution of slavery.

It is obviously necessary to make the most careful distinctions between the conservatism and liberalism which are merely moods or ideologies according to which one defends a status quo or seeks to leave it behind, and the conservatism and liberalism which are cogent political philosophies. We can dismiss the sort of conservatism and liberalism which are dispositions toward some status quo very simply by giving a priori preference for liberalism over conservatism on the grounds that it is not reasonable to defend any status quo uncritically; and that it is certainly not reasonable to do so in the rapidly changing conditions of a technical society in which "new conditions teach new duties and time makes ancient truth uncouth." If being for or against change were the only issue involved, any critical person would be bound to be "liberal."

If we study the various meanings of "liberalism" and "conservatism" in Western and particularly American social history, it soon becomes apparent that "liberalism" in the broadest sense is rightly identified with the rise of a modern technical society availing itself of democratic political forms and of capitalistic economic institutions. This "liberal society" came to birth in Britain, France and America in opposition to the feudal aristocratic culture of the European past. "Liberalism" in the broadest sense is therefore synonymous with "democracy." Its strategy is to free the individual from the traditional restraints of a society, to endow the "governed" with the power of the franchise, to establish the principle of the "consent of the governed" as the basis of political society; to challenge all hereditary privileges and traditional restraints upon human initiative, particularly in the economic sphere and to create the mobility and flexibility which are the virtues and achievements of every "liberal society" as distinguished from feudal ones.

But liberalism has more distinct connotations; and upon them hang all the issues of contemporary political controversy. One of these connotations arises out of the history of technical societies; the other arises out of the peculiar philosophy of the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In the first instance, the narrower connotation of liberalism is identified with the peculiar and unique ethos of middle-class life. But since the middle classes soon found the laboring classes to the Left of them, liberalism soon ceased to be the exclusive philosophy of democracy. Even without the rise of labor as a political power, modern democracies, as they developed from commercialism to industrialism, found that the freeing of economic initiative from political restraint was only one side of the problem of justice. The other side was placing restraints upon initiative in the interest of security and justice.

Thus in every modern industrial nation the word "liberalism" achieved two contradictory definitions. It was on the one hand the philosophy which insisted that economic life was to be free of any restraint. In this form it was identical with the only conservatism which nations, such as our own, who had no feudal past, could understand. It was the philosophy of the more successful middle classes who possessed enough personal skill, property or power to be able to prefer liberty to security. On the other hand the word was also used to describe the political strategy of those classes which preferred security to absolute liberty and which sought to bring economic enterprise under political control for the sake of establishing minimal standards of security and welfare. It has been rather confusing that both of these strategies go by the name of "liberalism."

The new conservatism about which one hears so much these days may claim a right to the title of "liberalism" on the ground that its promise of gaining justice through economic liberty is actually closer to the old classical economic liberalism than the new liberalism is. On the other hand if the concern for justice is the primary hallmark of liberalism, those who want to bring economic enterprise under at least minimal control have as much right to this title as those who want to preserve economic freedom. For a technical society, moving from commercial to industrial activities, was bound to find the emancipation from traditional restraints inadequate in the long run as a program for justice.

Thus it was significant that John Stuart Mill, who gave the liberal creed the most classic expression in the 19th Century, moved in the latter years of his life from pure libertarianism to a liberal socialism. It is even more significant that the Liberal Party in Britain took this turn at the beginning of the century before the Labour Party became a power. In Lloyd George's radical budget the taxing power of the state was used to guarantee minimal security for the workers. This development, in which incidentally Lloyd George was supported by Winston Churchill, Britain anticipated by a quarter of a century the transmutation of Jeffersonian liberalism into Roosevelt's "New Deal." American conservatives have made much of this volte-face of the liberal tradition; and in their "liberty leagues" tried to fill the political niche of the seemingly abandoned Jeffersonianism.


In European democracies the desire to establish justice by bringing economic power under political control was advanced by the Socialist parties. In Britain, the old Liberal Party slowly lost ground in the postwar years to labor and the new conservatism. At this moment, the old debate between freedom and control of economic life has narrowed to a very small difference in emphasis between the Tories and the Labour Party, a difference which has become slight in all modern nations. The debate between a responsible Right and a responsible Left is both inconclusive and insoluble because the degree of emphasis which must be put on planning or spontanaeity, on control or freedom, cannot be solved in terms of fixed principles. The peculiar conditions of each nation and of each period within a nation must and will determine the degree of emphasis on the one side or the other of the equation.

In all stable modern nations the political situation reflects the insolubility of this problem. Responsible parties, when not corrupted by demagogy and dishonesty, know that the economic and political life in a community cannot go too far in a collectivist direction without becoming prey to bureaucratic stagnation. Nor can it go too far in the direction of an uncontrolled economy without aggravating the perils of insecurity and the evils of inequality arising from centralization of power. Both evils are inherent in the economic process itself, particularly in our era of rapid growth of techniques.

The semantic difficulties arising from this shift in meaning of the word liberal as a technical civilization moves farther and farther from its original contest with an organic and aristocratic society, are, however, simple compared to the confusions of definition which arise from the fact that "liberalism" is both a political philosophy, identified with the rising technical civilization, and a total philosophy of life which was elaborated in the French Enlightenment. This confusion becomes the greater because liberalism and a modern technical society had their simultaneous inception in three modern nations, Great Britain, France and America. In one of these, France, the aristocratic past, based upon an organic society, was always in the background with its reactionary illusions which in turn incited the illusions of the Enlightenment. In another, Great Britain, the old society was broken in the Cromwellian revolution. Britain finally settled down at the end of the century with a constitutional monarchy of William and Mary which fused both liberal democracy and a more creative version of the old society. This fusion has ever since characterized British life and made John Locke on the one hand, and Edmund Burke on the other, the exponents of the chief strains of British political philosophy. In America the liberal society and the new nation had a simultaneous birth on a virgin continent with only a few vestigial remnants of the old society, and these were finally eliminated in our Civil War. For these and other reasons, American liberalism drew its primary inspiration from the ideological presuppositions of the culture which gave rise to the French Revolution and excluded a part of the British inheritance.

The French Enlightenment was "liberal" in its social policy in the sense that it championed all the extensions of political power and freedom from political control of economic enterprise which characterized the whole middle-class movement in its struggle with the feudal past. But it also had a total philosophy of life based on confidence in the perfectability of man and on the idea of historical progress. These two ideas were basic to all the political miscalculations of the Enlightenment and were the source of its errors. "Liberalism" acquired a special connotation as a philosophy of life which did not take the factors of interest and power seriously, which expected all parochial loyalties to be dissolved in more universal loyalties; and which was indifferent to organically or historically established loyalties and rights under the illusion that it would be simple for rational man to devise more ideal communities and rights. The liberalism of the French Enlightenment was thus based upon illusions as to the nature of man and of history. It was quasi-anarchistic and pacifistic in its attitude toward the coercions which are a necessary part of communal cohesion and toward the conflicts of interest which always take place between communities. These were the illusions which Burke challenged in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment was not shared by such conservatives as John Adams or such Jeffersonians as James Madison. Our Constitution was, in fact, informed by a realism which contradicted all the illusions of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless it became the primary source of inspiration for the democratic movement in America. When sectarian Christian perfectionism merged with the thought of the Enlightenment on our frontier, perfectionist illusions in regard to man became the stables of the American liberal movement.

It must be apparent to anyone that it adds to the semantic confusion if those who do not share the illusions of Diderot and Condorcet are termed "conservatives." Such persons would be more accurately defined as "realistics," particularly since a realistic estimate of perennial factors in the historical and social situation may be put into the service of either a conservative or advancing social policy. It would certainly be wrong to define a labor leader as "conservative" merely because he knew, as every good labor leader must know, that a collective bargaining agreement is not merely a rational or moral encounter, and that its success depends upon the strength and unity of the force at his disposal. Incidentally, it must be observed that organized labor has always been "realistic" in this sense. Its realism included preference for proximate goals of justice, while the more academic liberalism was frequently beguiled by the utopian illusions of the Enlightenment.

In terms of international policy, confusion would be avoided if the word "conservative" were confined to the pure nationalist. It certainly does not fit the internationalist who knows about the perils and responsibilities of a nation in the potential global community, but who is not persuaded that "word government" is the answer.

There is, in short, no reason why the errors of the Enlightenment should continue to bedevil the "progressive" political movements, and why "liberalism" should be identified with illusions about human nature and history. Sometimes the foes of liberalism insist that the illusions are inherent in the policy. There are even some belated liberals who darkly insinuate that a realist who professes to be liberal in social policy must be a crypto-conservative who has yet to reveal his true colors. These confusions could be eliminated if the clear evidences of history were presented to prove that the "liberal" illusions are not necessary for democracy, and might actually have a have a baneful influence upon its life. The best evidence for this thesis is a comparison between the course of British and French democracy. In France the enthusiasm for a liberal society soon degenerated into Jacobin fanaticism and Bonapartist absolutism.

In contrast, the curious blend of aristocracy and democracy in Britain slowly evolved into the world's most stable democracy, in which "liberty broadened down from precedent to precedent." The only remnant of the old feudalism is still the prevalent class snobbishness of British life. This superior achievement was due, partly to the superior wisdom of the Lockean type of liberalism and partly to the interplay between the Lockean liberalism and the Burkean type of conservatism. The aristocratic tradition at its worst tried to maintain the traditional privileges of the feudal order. At its best it appreciated the organic aspects of community better than urban-centered liberalism. One must include under the "organic" aspect of community the force of mutually and historically acknowledged rights and responsibilities, in comparison with the "inalienable" rights which are worthless if no community acknowledges them. One must also include standards of justice which have developed by slow and unconscious growth rather than by conscious political intervention. Finally, to the organic aspects one must reckon the hierarchies of authority which develop in every political and economic realm, and without which the community could not be organized.

It is rather ironic that the rigorous equalitarian creed of Communism should in practice generate the monstrous inequalities of power and privilege which we see in the Russian scene. The inequalities are more excessive than usual because there is nothing in the creed that would come to terms with functional hierarchies as such. We have lesser ironic realities in so-called liberal communities, whether in labor unions or in churches. In every case justified inequalities of authority develop, and usually some unjustified inequalities of privilege.


An academic liberalism with its abstract notions of liberty and equality has never been able to come to terms with these realities of the community. There is, therefore, some truth in the aristocratic-conservative tradition which the most democratic society must rescue from the error of aristocratic pretentions and must incorporate into the wisdom by which the life of the community is regulated and integrated. This truth may be imbedded in a conservative tradition. But it must be freed from the errors which are also transmitted in the conservative tradition. If that is done the result can only be a realistic liberalism. It will be a liberalism because only that philosophy, stripped of its utopian errors, leaves the way to the future open.

There is, unfortunately, no social locus in America for a valid "conservative" philosophy. The more parochial part of the business community is bound to develop a conservatism in which a decadent laissez-faire liberalism in domestic politics is compounded with nationalism. It can be beguiled from these prejudices only by the prestige of an Eisenhower. The realism embodied in a valid conservatism, therefore, becomes the property of all parties and tendencies which have enough pragmatic wisdom to discern the perennial factors in the shifting historical scene.

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr is a noted Protestan theologian who has written extensively on the nature of man and history.

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