Liberalism’s Origins

Fred Siegel has written a truly important book and Wilfred McClay’s excellent review focuses on its central insights (“The High-Low Coalition,” Winter 2013/14). McClay sees that the most important contribution of The Revolt Against the Masses is to provide an alternative explanation for the rise of modern American liberalism. The conventional narrative sees modern American liberalism as rooted in Progressivism, treating it as a necessary, positive response to 19th-century industrialism and the robber barons who came to control and exploit much of the economy. As McClay writes, “Siegel’s book is asking us to reconsider the history of the last century or so through a different lens—the lens offered by our tracking the moves and motives of the aspirant intellectual class.”

This alternative lens has the great virtue of placing human agency at the heart of the story of liberalism’s rise. In Siegel’s analysis, American liberalism’s ideas and policies did not constitute an inevitable response to objective economic forces; they arose from the thoughts and longings of individuals exercising their own free will. Because the 20th century’s key political and policy developments were not inevitable, Siegel invites us to revisit them—most importantly, how a seminal group of thinkers during the 1920s set liberalism along the path it has followed ever since, a path rooted in fear and loathing of common opinion and disparagement of business.

This highly influential group included such otherwise disparate thinkers as H.L. Mencken, Herbert Croly, Sinclair Lewis, and their English soulmate H.G. Wells. Their negative appraisal of America (and in Wells’s case, Britain too) stemmed as much from the successes of American free-enterprise economics and democratic politics as from their shortcomings. America’s prosperity and political stability deserved no celebration because those very accomplishments bred a numbingly boring culture, political timidity, and social life dominated by small-minded, parochial, and vulgar nincompoops. Though they shared Nietzsche’s contempt for bourgeois life, this cadre of intellectuals had a much less cataclysmic vision of how it was to be transcended and transformed. Their Übermenschen were social engineers, people of superior intellect and taste who could manage away the banalities and inefficiencies produced by competitive, profit-driven economics and disorganized, dysfunctional democratic politics.

Not only does Siegel demonstrate the essential role of these intellectuals in spawning modern liberalism, he makes a critical distinction between them and the Progressives with whom they are normally conflated. These liberals did not share the Progressive preoccupation with taming capitalist excess nor did they identify with the bourgeois moralism, religiosity, and majoritiarianism that pervaded Progressivism. Progressives celebrated “the people.” Liberals despised the people. While Progressives were often willing to use government as an instrument of coercion, liberals were much more protective of personal privacy and suspicious of government compulsion.

Siegel highlights the distinction between liberalism and Progressivism via the writings of a much overlooked but deeply influential pioneering liberal, Randolph Bourne, best known for his opposition to U.S. intervention in World War I. As Siegel points out, that opposition stemmed not from a hatred of war per se but from an overweening admiration of German culture, especially its powerful Romantic streak. Bourne, said his friend and fellow critic Van Wyck Brooks, wanted to “think emotions and feel ideas.” Bourne favorably compared the “sheer heroic power” of German ideals to the “shabby and sordid” life of Americans. Presaging the 1960s, he looked to the youth of America to throw off the shackles of conformism and stultifying morality and to strive to create a new civilization devoted to personal fulfillment and the pursuit of beauty.

Thus, Siegel is able to show that key tenets of contemporary liberalism—especially its cultural condescension, anti-majoritarianism, and quest for the liberation of the individual—are rooted in the watered-down Nietzscheanism of 1920s’ intellectuals rather than in the Progressivism that preceded them. This naturally leads to the question that one hopes will be the subject of Siegel’s next book: why did this not very impressive brand of thinking become so dominant in American life and thought? It is not surprising that some intellectuals would scorn the civilization that commercial liberal democracy had created. But it is astonishing that such an outlook should prevail. Why was there not a more robust response from learned, thoughtful Americans to this disdainful attack on so much of what Americans purport to hold dear: the wisdom of the common man, pride in honest labor, respect for success, the nobility inherent in providing well for one’s family and in sustaining decent community life?

Marc Landy
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA

Wilfred McClay’s thoughtfully written review was so beautifully wrought that it’s difficult to take issue with it. The review’s opening discussion of narrative was conceptual catnip for one of my sisters, a Hollywood screenwriter, who’s been trying to understand academia’s descent into an ill-mannered incoherence. But there is one short passage I found off the mark:

How can liberals, and they alone, be motivated by the pure pursuit of justice? So turn their own premises against them, and show that, sadly, and infuriatingly, the power of liberalism has translated into the steady enrichment of those who wield it, and into steadily diminishing prospects in the lives of the very people it first rose to serve.

But liberalism first arose in the early 1920s to serve the aspirations of intellectuals and writers who would benefit from it and who felt insufficiently appreciated by the American public.

In retrospect, I wish Revolt Against the Masses had included the essay on Richard Hofstadter I wrote for the New Criterion in February. In it I tried to show how H.L. Mencken’s style, which was crucial to the development of liberalism, was carried on into mid-century by the famous historian of American liberalism:

Hofstadter, dubbed “the second Mencken” by the distinguished English professor Kenneth Lynn, adopted elements of Mencken’s style and antidemocratic attitudes while rejecting the “Sage of Baltimore’s” depreciation of the New Deal…. After World War II, two of the most prominent liberals, Hofstadter and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, were acclaimed for what was in effect, though rarely discussed, their meld of Mencken and Marx. In Hofstadter’s case it was a meld of Mencken and the economic determinist historian Charles Beard even more than Marx.

Near the end of Marc Landy’s lucid comments he asks why liberalism, a “not very impressive brand of thinking,” went on to “become so dominant in American life and thought?” Briefly, I would answer that liberalism triumphed in the academy not only because it promised to enhance the power of academics, but because what came to be called conservatism—though it seemed intuitively true to most Americans—was late to present itself as a coherent alternative. Conservatism emerged not only as an articulation of what seemed experientially true but as a reaction to the triumphs—disastrous though they were—of left-wing ideology. Walter Lippmann’s The Good Society and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom were largely discrete achievements, and even the creation of National Review in 1955 was of limited impact until the 1960s forced both conservatives and those liberals who became neoconservatives to rethink their worldviews.

Liberalism, I would suggest, maintains its current political influence not so much because its ideas have emerged victorious. They haven’t. Rather, the Great Society’s patronage politics, Black Nationalism, mass unskilled immigration, the McGovernite expansion of “legalitarianism” (redistribution through litigation), the postmodern replacement of information with attitude on college campuses, and the rise of public sector unions has produced a formidable political machine. What we saw in 2012 was that liberalism, buttressed by an increasingly fawning press, can survive numerous policy failures so long as the constituent components of the machine continue to thrive.

Fred Siegel
The Manhattan Institute
New York, NY

Wilfred M. McClay replies:

To my mind, one of the most valuable insights of Revolt Against the Masses lies in its insistence that liberalism, for all its professions of generosity and high-mindedness, has been pervaded by self-interested and self-serving elements from the start. In other words, Siegel argues, the problem with liberalism has always been something much greater than, say, the unanticipated consequences of purposive action—that hoary old bromide which is taken to explain why good intentions are so often mugged by reality. A familiar adage, as I say, but not quite the whole story. Siegel also wants to underscore the inconvenient truth that key figures in the liberal movement were motivated by less attractive forces, high among them being a disdain unto loathing for middle-class American life. If Henry Adams was right when he said, at the opening of his Education, that politics is the “systematic organization of hatreds,” then liberalism’s seeming incoherence becomes entirely explicable; it’s largely a matter of how the diverse hatreds—of bourgeois life, big business, great wealth, authoritative organized religion, moralizers and prudes—have ended up being organized.

I completely agree with Siegel about Richard Hofstadter’s debt to Mencken; this was an observation about him made not only by Kenneth Lynn, but also by Hofstadter’s friend Alfred Kazin in his book New York Jew, among other places. Indeed, Mencken influenced a whole generation of writers who celebrated his irreverent style and sought to imitate his irreverent attitude (minus his animus toward Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, of course, which is silently edited out of his memory). I grew up near Baltimore, reading the now-defunct Evening Sun, which routinely glorified Mencken as its patron saint, making him into a kind of benign civic icon, a sort of Baltimore version of Will Rogers. He was nothing of the sort. He was a nasty piece of work—a social Darwinist and vulgar Nietzschean; a foe of most every aspect of religion, very much including its more generous aspects; a fervent opponent of Anglo-Saxon culture; and an inveterate mocker of all things that common Americans held dear.

And yet I think it’s safe to say that Mencken would be utterly contemptuous of Obama-era liberalism, and disclaim nearly all connection to it, whether the issue in question were the nationalization of health care, the demonization of smoking and trans fats, the deference to feminism (not to mention LGBT sensibilities), affirmative action in hiring, speech codes and other restrictions on expressive rights, and so on. Which raises a problem that, following Marc Landy’s lead, I propose as a subject for Fred Siegel’s next book, namely, how did this happen? How did American liberalism turn from a regime of robust freedom to a regime of busybodying control? Even if one accepts the view, which Siegel restates in his response to my review, that liberalism was entirely a matter of self-interested motives from the start, the question remains: how did a doctrine of freedom so easily become transformed into its seeming opposite? How did the ebullient free spirit of the “lyrical left” in the ’10s and ’20s become the regime of what James Piereson has aptly called “punitive liberalism,” in which the assignment and transference of historic guilt, and the exploitation of that guilt in others, is the name of the game?

Part of the answer, I suspect, will be found in studying the ways in which liberalism and Progressivism, analytically distinct and discrete in theory, have turned out to be thoroughly intertwined in practice. Take a figure like John Dewey. He was most certainly a liberal, and most certainly a Progressive, and that fact becomes a recipe for confusion, in which the word “liberal” becomes equivocated upon almost as often as the word “democratic”—and for the same reasons. Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between negative and positive liberty was a way of getting at the difference between the two, and explaining how Progressivism could see itself as a way of being “liberal”—because, after all, it was forcing those under its sway to be free by “educating” or “engineering” them into that condition.

The arrogance that looks upon the actual lives of ordinary people with pity or disdain is, at least potentially, the same arrogance that knows what would be better for those pathetic folks, and presumes itself fit to impose upon them a new way of life that is more fitting and fulfilling than their present condition, had they the wit to realize it. Following that logic, it’s not hard to see how Mencken leads to John Galbraith, or how figures like H.G. Wells and Randolph Bourne managed to maintain simultaneously the libertarian and statist aspects of their outlook—even though in many respects those aspects are incompatible with one another.

It does seem to me, however, that there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if one attempts an overly comprehensive indictment of liberalism. I think there is still plenty to be said for liberalism, when it is rightly understood as: an assertion of the dignity of the individual; a generous reaction against the exploitation of vulnerable and weaker individuals; a guarantor of the rights of minorities; and an affirmation of intellectual, moral, and spiritual liberty, even unto (as Kevin Hasson has put it so memorably) the right to be wrong. That the people who call themselves conservatives are often the most valiant defenders of these things today—and as Siegel suggests, an argument can be made that American conservatism has been mainly a corrective response to liberalism’s excesses—doesn’t change the fact that it is a form of liberalism that they are defending. I don’t think Fred Siegel wants to go so far as to deny that there are those who embrace liberalism because they honestly believe it serves the lives of ordinary people. I believe there was a time when such people did, and it made sense for them to do so. Where I would agree with Siegel is that to do so today is to be deluded. It is to believe, say, that public teachers’ unions have the interests of their students at heart, or that the American Civil Liberties Union cares about civil liberties irrespective of who is in power, or that Obamacare is all about serving the needs of the uninsured.

That is what I meant in that passage to which Siegel took exception. I don’t want to defend what liberalism has become. But I do think that one of the supreme ironies in the story he tells is that there was a time—before liberalism became the theme song of cyber-billionaires, lifestyle radicals, academics, guilt merchants, and public-employee unions—when it really did seek to honor the common man. Not anymore.

For more discussion of the origins of modern liberalism with Marc Landy, Fred Siegel, and Wilfred McClay, visit our online feature Upon Further Review at

A Nation Under God?

Peter Lawler has well articulated the remarkable blend of reason and faith in the Declaration of Independence when he writes that “The Declaration harmonized, so to speak, Virginia’s proud and selfish particularity with the personal universalism of New England Christianity” (“Southern Discomfort,” Winter 2013/14).

If I understand Professor Lawler correctly, self-interest and evangelism are the products, respectively, of the Enlightenment and the Reformation. In his joining together of each of these aspects of the Declaration—which partisans of one or the other are usually disinclined to do—he points to the larger question of what sort of nation America is. Some hold it to be a Christian nation; others assert it to be wholly secular. James Madison observed in The Federalist that the proposed Constitution “is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both.” I would be very interested to know whether Lawler believes the Declaration, properly understood, is evidence that America is neither a religious nor a secular nation, but a composition of both.

Richard H. Reeb, Jr.
Helendale, CA

Peter Augustine Lawler replies:

My answer to Richard Reeb’s thoughtful and appreciative question is “you are right, sir.” Let me explain.

America’s most wonderful and effective theological balancing act is our Declaration of Independence. It gets its greatness by being a legislative compromise between the Deistic and the more Calvinist (or residually Puritan) members of Congress who amended Thomas Jefferson’s draft—“mangled” it, in Jefferson’s own opinion, but actually improving it. By reconciling the modern philosophers’ (particularly John Locke’s) unrelational, past-tense God of nature and the Puritans’ personal, judgmental, providential Creator, our Declaration can be called a kind of accidental Thomism—an affirmation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s core teaching of personal natural law. As John Courtney Murray put it in his book We Hold These Truths, through their statesmanship and democratic deliberation the American Founders built better than they knew.

Had our Declaration been the exclusive product of the original Puritans, it would have been theocratic—that is, unorthodox. Although they were authentically Christian in their political belief that all persons are made in God’s image and therefore equal, the Puritans were heretics, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, in the sense that they sought to criminalize every sin by basing their political laws on the Torah. The American Founding’s genius was to incorporate the Deistic or individualistic criticism of the Puritans’ intrusive, highly personal idea of Christian citizenship while allowing the New Englanders’ sometimes fanatically egalitarian idealism to balance Lockean selfish indifference to anyone’s well-being beyond one’s own. The Puritans, from our view, displayed too much political concern for people’s souls; the Deists aimed, in the name of personal freedom, to empty political and even social life of much of its properly relational or participatory content.

Our Declaration suggests that we are free and relational beings by nature—natural persons, without referring at all, of course, to Biblical revelation. Our natural longings as free persons point toward a certain kind of Creator, even if we don’t have particular knowledge of, or faith in, who that God is. Our “transcendence” is not merely freedom for self-determination, nor is it the philosphers’ “freedom of the mind” that’s elitist, selfish, and fundamentally amoral. We are free from political determination, as James Madison wrote, in order to fulfill our conscientious duties to our Creator—duties that even Madison didn’t sufficiently recognize are not lonely and inward but social and relational. For Americans, freedom of religion, properly understood, is freedom for churches, for personal authority embodied in “organized religion.”

Aquinas and the Eucharist

Although I appreciate Fr. Guilbeau’s comments on my little monograph on Thomas Aquinas (“Divine Doctors,” Winter 2013/14), I am unimpressed by his criticism that I failed to emphasize Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation when addressing his views on the Eucharist. He may want to disagree with me, but downplaying transubstantiation can only be regarded as a failure if one looks no farther than the Summa Theologiae and not, as I do, to Thomas’s Reportatio on John’s Gospel and his liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Christi. I do insist that transubstantiation is for Thomas the only way to account for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I thought it a pity, however, that his eucharistic theology should be, as so often it is, reduced to the mechanics of eucharistic change, losing his striking emphasis on the connection between Jesus’ Eucharistic presence and his Kingdom’s eschatological presence in history. I suppose it is possible to prefer scaffolding to the building, but for my taste I prefer the beauty of Chartres Cathedral to its engineering principles.

Denys Turner
Yale Divinity School
New Haven, CT

Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., replies:

Professor Turner echoes the criticism of the late William Barden, the Irish Dominican missionary and archbishop of Ispahan (Iran), whose commentary on Aquinas’s Eucharistic theology appears in the multi-volume edition of the Summa Theologiae edited by Thomas Gilby. Like Turner, Barden warns against allowing curiosity to distract from what one can say more surely, as Aquinas does, about the nature of the Eucharistic change—transubstantiation—itself. “What it should suggest to us here,” Barden writes in summary of Saint Thomas’s teaching,

is the total passing over of the complete reality of the substance of the bread (matter and form; essence and existence) into the reality of Christ’s body which is in heaven: but in such a way that, as a result of this passing over, the accidents [of bread] are not left hollow symbols of Christ in heaven, but are filled as really containing him who is locally there [in heaven], yet also here [on earth], non-locally, non-naturally, really, uniquely, sacramentally, miraculously, per modum substantiae [substantially].

Barden addresses Turner’s concern directly by making clear that transubstantiation is not mechanical but metaphysical, accessible to all who can distinguish between a substance and its accidents.

For Aquinas, the Eucharist as banquet, food, memorial, instrument of grace, and pledge of future glory—the aspects of the Eucharistic mystery he lists in his O sacrum convivium—achieve their full intelligibility only when ordered beneath transubstantiation’s soaring and form-defining vaults. The Eucharistizing action transubstantiation describes is not the scaffolding but is itself the building that encloses all the rest. Here is the cathedral Turner seeks, and it is found everywhere a priest stands at his altar.

So while I agree with Turner that one should look to the whole of Saint Thomas’s corpus for his broad explanation of the Eucharistic mystery, I do not agree that what we find in the Summa Theologiae—that is, Aquinas’s last instruction on the Eucharist—is somehow reductive of his overall understanding of the sacrament. Nor, based on his final teaching, do aspects of the mystery other than transubstantiation—and sacrifice, a point of emphasis for Aquinas that receives nary a mention by Turner—form “the reason why the Eucharist appeals so directly to Thomas.” Professor Turner’s insights into these other aspects are enlightening as far as they go, but the two or three on which he focuses cannot be said to “constitute the heart of Thomas’s Eucharistic theology.” In the Thomistic scheme, as Barden notes, the only thing more fascinating than the Eucharistizing action itself is the purpose lying behind its divine authorship: “Only a divine ingenuity could have devised that means of communion which is the real presence of the body and blood and of the whole Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, that we may get close to him in the bread of life and take it into our very hands and eat it.”