From Liberalism to Social Democracy

From Liberalism to Social Democracy

Geoffrey Kurtz reviews Liberal Beginnings

Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns
by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson
Cambridge University Press, 2008, 191 pp.

WHEN POLITICAL thinkers adapt old ideas to new circumstances, they sometimes find that they have left the old ideas behind. Liberal Beginnings, a work of historical argument by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson, is about how this happens–or at least how it has happened in the past. More narrowly, it is about the way modern liberalism emerged from early modern republicanism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The central political question at stake in this book is whether the liberal tradition contains sufficient resources for its own renewal. In other words, whether the way of thinking about politics pioneered by Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Germaine de Staël, and Benjamin Constant offers the ideas the democratic left needs if it is to rethink its work today. The authors think it does. But in explaining their reasons, they also give us reason to think that it might not.

Kalyvas and Katznelson present a new framework for thinking about the relationship between the liberal and republican traditions in political thought. Debates between liberals and those critics of liberalism who style themselves as “civic republicans” have often been organized around unnecessary dichotomies.

How can we choose between process and substance, the universal and the particular, the individual and the community? We can’t, at least not if we want to think through the demands of a politics that is simultaneously radical and democratic.

Kalyvas and Katznelson’s alternative is to understand the relationship between the two traditions historically. Liberalism, they write, developed from republicanism as a butterfly does from a chrysalis. A cohort of pivotal thinkers between 1750 and 1830 began as republicans and, in trying to construct “a republic for moderns,” ended up inventing modern liberalism and bringing about the end of republicanism as a “freestanding model.”

Most of Liberal Beginnings consists of an explanation of how this transition occurred in the political thought of Smith, Ferguson, Paine, Madison, Staël, and Constant. These six thinkers moved from republicanism to (or, in some cases, simply towards) liberalism in different ways. Smith took the classical concern with public speech and mutual regard—what some theorists today call “recognition”—and “transposed” it from the ancient polis to the modern market. This ”displaced republicanism” attempted to preserve something from older political traditions even within a modern commercial society.

Ferguson tried to develop what Kalyvas and Katznelson call an “agonistic liberalism” appropriate to an era of pluralistic civil society and commercial development, and he searched in vain for institutions that could maintain republican civic virtue in this context. Attuned to the fragmentation of modern societies, Ferguson saw the adjudication of conflict through political institutions as a fundamental feature of political life and thus insisted on the value of social and political pluralism.

Smith and Ferguson, in different ways, arrived at the same pair of insights: that a social and economic shift towards a pluralistic and commercial society had already occurred, and that if republican ideas of the common good were to survive they would need to take on new institutional forms. A generation later, Paine and Madison continued this project by designing the political forms of such a modern republic.

These two thinkers are the heart of Kalyvas and Katznelson’s argument; they write that the American founding is “a decisive site for understanding how republican themes and ideas turned in a liberal direction.” Paine and Madison, the authors argue, proposed that the principles of representation and popular sovereignty could sustain a modern republic, providing a workable alternative to the undesirable extremes of direct democracy and tyranny.

The ideas of representation and popular sovereignty had long been present within the republican tradition but had previously been less important to republicans than principles such as the public good, civic virtue, and the mixed regime. The American Founders’ great insight was to favor those elements of the republican tradition that were most compatible with—and that best responded to the distinct problems of—the social context that Smith and Ferguson had described. The “unplanned result” of this search for a modern republic was the creation of a distinctly liberal politics in which the central strategies for achieving political stability were representative constitutions, the defense of individual rights, a politics of interest-based bargaining, and a policy of economic development, rather than the republican pursuit of social harmony and civic virtue.

The other great republican revolution of the eighteenth century was, of course, in France. Kalyvas and Katznelson describe the gradual changes in political thought of the French republicans Staël and Constant, each of whom moved toward emphatically liberal positions by the early nineteenth century. Like Smith and Ferguson, Staël and Constant understood liberalism as an expression of a stage of history, not as a transhistorical ideal. Like Paine and Madison, they sought a middle point between the poles of democratic chaos and monarchical tyranny. Staël began as a staunch republican, but rejected that position in favor of liberalism as she became convinced that a unitary public good was impossible under modern conditions and that a constitutional regime of individual rights was thus necessary. Constant—in trying to develop a historicist argument for individual liberty—forged what Kalyvas and Katznelson call an “immanent liberalism” that incorporated the liberal ideas of rights and rule of law, a republican call for public spiritedness, and a conservative suspicion toward self-interest.

Taken together, Kalyvas and Katznelson argue, these six thinkers show the process through which the classical and Renaissance idea of the republic morphed quietly into modern liberalism. After 1830, they insist, there has been no living republican tradition in political thought. For Kalyvas and Katznelson, liberalism has triumphed, but the liberalism that has triumphed in political life is quite different from the liberalism that has come to dominate Anglophone political theory in recent years.

Kalyvas and Katznelson favor adjectives like thick, situated, historical, and political to describe the liberalism they derive from the six subjects of their book. They see in them “a mode of liberal reasoning” that operates “between the abstract and the concrete, the normative and the descriptive, the universal and the particular,” and that seeks to offer “principled political judgment…[for] particular situations.”

This mode of liberal reasoning is a way of thinking about politics that seeks to respond to problems and situations by offering concrete institutional proposals that can protect individual rights and hold power accountable. This liberalism remains infused with republican “values, sensibilities, and orientations.” Republican “nostalgia” may no longer be an option, the authors write, but liberal “purity” is just as untenable. Modern liberalism, the authors propose, is at its best when it is attuned to its republican sources.

KALYVAS AND Katznelson describe this unexpected emergence of liberalism in a compelling way. But what of the new circumstances that developed since 1830? Kalyvas and Katznelson end their story on the eve of the industrial revolution, just as capitalism begins to emerge as a distinct social system. By ending here, they suggest that more recent political movements of the democratic left have simply expressed the continuing application of the mode of liberal reasoning they have outlined—and that the best critique of these movements must come from this same mode of liberal reasoning, applied anew.

But what if these movements offered new modes of reasoning that incorporated and grew beyond nineteenth-century liberalism just as liberalism had incorporated and grown beyond older republican traditions? The labor movement, the welfare state, and the mixed economy—linked as they are to a politics of solidarity and to the debates over the relationship between economic power and political power—have certainly been constructed through a situated and problem-solving mode of reasoning. But is it helpful to think of these institutional innovations as simple extensions of a liberal project?

The practices of organizing unions and the models of collective bargaining and reform that constitute social democratic politics arguably mark just as clear a departure from previous ways of thinking about politics as did the modern liberal republic for which Madison and Paine worked. Indeed, scholars like James Kloppenberg (in his 1986 book Uncertain Victory) and Sheri Berman (in the pages of Dissent and in her 2006 book The Primacy of Politics) have suggested that social democracy arose from the work of dissident reformist Marxists and dissident social liberals in much the same way that Kalyvas and Katznelson describe liberalism arising from republicanism. The pioneering social democrats of the early twentieth century, like the pioneering liberals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth, found that old ideals could not survive except through new institutions and new forms of political action–but also that it was impossible to think clearly about those innovations by relying only on the old ideals.

Kalyvas and Katznelson have offered us a way to move beyond certain tired dichotomies in recent political thought and have demonstrated how political theory might be at once more attuned to history and more sensitive to current political questions. They may also have given us, despite their intentions, a model for understanding how social democracy forged a mode of political reasoning distinct from liberalism by applying just the sort of “institutional resourcefulness, situated reasoning, and political invention” through which liberalism displaced republicanism two centuries ago.

Geoffrey Kurtz is assistant professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the City University of New York. He is a frequent contributor to Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture and he is currently writing a book about the political thought of Jean Jaurès.

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