The Crisis of Liberalism

After the catastrophe of World War One intellectuals had become disillusioned with the philosophical beliefs and the political ideals that we associate with liberal government:

Locke’s social contract, natural rights, and Smith’s Invisible Hand?

John Locke had argued that a just society would offer the most freedom to its citizens while protecting their natural rights. Adam Smith had argued that free markets create more productive and fair economic systems by encouraging competition to set wages and prices at their true levels.

In practice, however, bourgeois business interests dominated liberal government, tipping the playing field to their advantage. Monopolies exploited laborers by keeping wages at un-naturally low levels. The ideal of freedom was used to justify the control of capital by an increasingly small number of powerful people.

The Efficacy of Reason and Democracy

The philosophes of the Enlightenment had placed their faith in the ability of social science to engineer a new and better society. Adam Smith had argued that the competition generated by the pursuit of self-interest would reward human industry and create a more wealthy and equitable society. Similarly, liberal political philosophers believed that the pursuit of individual self-interest would be moderated by democratic political institutions in which public debate would lead to rational and peaceful compromise.

However, liberal governments had failed to deal decisively with the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Governments did not regulate the violent rise and fall of the world economy; workers did not receive employment guarantees or a fair share of the profits; craftspeople lost their livelihoods and struggled to adjust to a new economy in which their old skills were no longer useful. The lower classes in liberal societies continued to suffer in terrible living conditions, and their leaders, doubting that gradual political reforms would ever address the problems of poverty, turned increasingly to more radical and revolutionary ideologies.

The result: competition without between nations for control of world markets and class struggle within between workers, bourgeois owners, obsolete craftspeople, obsolete aristocrats, and impatient students agitating for change.

Furthermore, the competition between liberal nation states for dominance of world trade led to brutal and dehumanizing imperialist campaigns around the world and an arms race that resulted in the catastrophe of World War I.

The Innate Goodness of Humans?

Nationalist movements had unleashed irrational passions, and the Great War revealed no limit for man’s capacity for cruelty and violence. Philosophers like Nietzsche glorified the irrational and mocked the weakness of Christian morality and liberal compromise. Evolutionary biologists like Darwin argued that humans were no different in kind than animals. Darwin not only proposed a purely physical origin of mankind, but he argued that there is no moral dimension to the natural world. Psychologists like Freud suggested that irrational forces beyond our control or understanding drive human behavior.


Science’s promise of a new utopia

Instead of creating an improved quality of life, the new technologies had created weapons of mass destruction: the machine gun, tanks, poison gas, the submarine, the airplane and, eventually, the industrialized killing factories of Auschwitz and the threat of global annihilation represented by the atom bomb. Military leaders used these weapons indiscriminately, killing not only of millions of soldiers but also significant segments of the civilian population.


The Rise of New Political Ideologies

New political movements on both the left and the right rose to challenge the legitimacy of liberal government that could not head off a worldwide depression during the 1930’s.   

Fascism (the challenge to liberalism from the right)

Fascist: The word derives from the Italian word fasces- the bundle of rods that a Roman dictator wielded as a symbol of his absolute power during a time of emergency.

The Spread of Fascism

Fascist governments seized power first in Italy and then in country after country throughout Central and Eastern Europe. 

Totalitarian Regimes in Europe in the 1930s

The Roots of Fascism in Late Romantic Thought

Fascists rejected the Enlightenment belief in reason in favor of the Romantic exaltation of a vital, creative life force expressed in powerful emotions and in violent action. They believed that reason enfeebled the will. Unlike earlier Romantics, the fascists did not believe in the imagination’s power to liberate the individual; rather they exalted in a national, increasingly racial identity (the Volk).

Fascism: the Rebellion of the Sons vs. the Fathers

Fascists sought to overthrow impotent parliamentary forms of government with their mediocre (and aged) leaders who would be replaced by young, virile and dynamic leaders who possessed the will to take decisive action.

The New Nationalism

Fascists promoted a new form of nationalism. As opposed to liberal movements that aimed to secure individual rights, fascist movements sacrificed political liberty to dreams of national greatness and the promise of imperial power.

Social Darwinists denounced ethnic and cultural minorities (such as gypsies and Jews) and created a new nationalist cult revering ancestors and the sacred bond between the people (the Volk) and their national blood, soil, and mythic past.

Fascists were the first modern politicians to tap the vast potential of mass media to manipulate the beliefs of the people. They used film, poster art, and huge mass meetings to promote adulation of the party and its demagogic leaders.

The Fascist Political Coalition

Fascists formed a political coalition (frequently glued together with racist ideology) of the military, the landholding aristocracy, the clergy, and big industrialists. They sought support among the masses of peasants and the lower middle class (the petit-bourgeoisie). They found support among those groups that had been most disturbed by the changing economics of the industrial age.

Fascist Anti-Communism

Fascists were united by their fear and hatred of the emerging proletariat. They were able to take power primarily due to the fear that the Russian Revolution would spread to Central Europe. 

The Fascist Inversion of Enlightenment Beliefs

Equal Rights


Rule of Law

Glorification of spontaneous action and violence

Cosmopolitan Brotherhood:

A Nation of ‘Volk’ willing to expel and if necessary exterminate aliens.

Individual Rights

Collective Identity: an elite core of party initiates surround a demagogic leader.


Marxism (the challenge to liberalism from the left)

Origins of Marxist Thought in Enlightenment Philosophy

Marxist political philosophy grew out of the same core Enlightenment beliefs from which liberalism originated.

  • The essential goodness of human nature
  • The belief in the power of reason to perfect society

Social Rights over Political Rights

Marxists rejected liberal government’s protection of individual rights at the expense of social justice. Social rights, the right to a job, to a decent wage, to a home, to an education, to health care, to a pension, were far more important to them than the freedoms protected by Locke's social contract.

Violent Revolution

Marxists believed that social justice could never be achieved through reforming the liberal economic system. Only violent revolution could bring the working class to power and destroy the structure of capitalism.

History as Class Struggle

Marxists believed that class struggle and violence were the essential vehicles of social change and progress.

Socio-Economic Environment Determines Identity

Where liberals believed that the individual could overcome poverty through education and the development of self-discipline, Marxists argued that the individual alone could not determine his own destiny. Real social change could only be achieved through the transformation of the environment itself.

Dialectical Materialism

Marxists held to a strictly materialist philosophy. They rejected all metaphysical and religious idealism. They argued that people should struggle to change the world, not transcend it.

Marxists held that historical progress is not random but can be understood through rational principles.

Marxists believe that existence precedes identity. Man is defined by the socio-economic environment (not liberal rights, not national identity, not religious belief, not ethnic culture).

Marxists argued that technological advances in the ways that goods are produced and wealth is distributed drive historical change.

Marxists argued that technological change creates class struggle. New social classes emerge and history proceeds when opposing classes clash.