North America is a gigantic island in the world ocean, and linguistic misunderstandings between this continent and other parts of the globe are therefore frequent and numerous: To put Syria and Lebanon in the Middle East (where, then, is the Near East?) is as erroneous as the term “Holocaust” (a Hellenic sacrifice to gain the favor of the gods) for a brutal mass slaughter, not to mention the idiocy of talking about “male chauvinism.” To lump together traditional monarchists and National Socialists as “rightists” is as confusing as to label leftist semi-socialists as “liberals.” The last-mentioned error is a relatively recent one, and since I came for the first time to the United States at the tail end of the New Deal, I was a witness to the beginning of this deplorable perversion. But how did it come about?
The term “liberal” in its political connotation we owe to Spain, the nation that always valued freedom most highly if not excessively, and therefore also produced a great many anarchists in the last 150 years. Resisting the Napoleonic invasion, Spain proclaimed in the liberated South, in Cadiz, a liberal constitution whose supporters were called los liberales. (They denounced their opponents as los serviles.) Obviously, a real liberal is a person who values liberty highly and, since the New Testament frequently speaks of liberty (eleutheria) but almost never of equality, it is not surprising that Christianity has a personalistic theology. Liberals thus stand for freedom rightly understood.
In 1816 Southey used the expression “liberal” for the first time in England but still in its Spanish form, liberales. Sir Walter Scott adopted the French form libéraux. In 1832, in connection with the big parliamentary reform, the Whigs assumed the liberal label, the Tories the “conservative” one. Oddly enough, it was the liberal Chateaubriand who called his paper Le conservateur, a word he invented, but in that early period liberals and conservatives were not so far from each other. (Surely Burke –as a Whig–was a liberal and a conservative as well. He is almost worshiped by present-day American conservatives.)
Edmund Burke died in 1797; Adam Smith, a moralist, economist, and great liberal, in 1790. I would call both “pre-liberals” because they did not (could not) use the liberal label. I consider even Voltaire an “early liberal,” a man who loved freedom, supported the “liberal” Louis XVI against the reactionary parlements and was totally misunderstood not so much by his contemporaries as by later generations. (He had a church built in Fernet, went to Mass every Sunday, and was anything but a democrat. To understand him one ought to read his brilliant biography by Alfred Noyes, a Catholic convert.)
Thus we can call this first phase of liberalism “pre-liberalism” and the succeeding, number two phase, “early liberalism.” Its outstanding representatives were Alexis de Tocqueville, Count Montalembert, and Lord Acton, three Catholic aristocrats. Here we must keep in mind that the periods of liberalism (as of other intellectual currents) succeeded each other in overlapping waves. De Tocqueville was born in 1805, and Acton died in 1902. These early liberals were believing Catholic Christians, Montalembert and Acton throughout their lives, de Tocqueville in later age. Their love for freedom was rooted in Christianity.
The third wave we shall call “old liberals” who no longer took their inspiration from the Christian message but merely from the conviction that it is agreeable to be free, that oppression is inhuman, and that a free society (with a free economy) is the right form of society delivering goods to the many. Their relationship to Christianity is tenuous since they “naturally” do not like dogmas, ecclesiastic discipline, and authority and also have deistic and agnostic inclinations. However, we must be careful not to generalize too forcibly. Gladstone, certainly a liberal, was also very much a believing Christian. Still, the old liberals clashed with the Catholic church (as well as with the orthodoxy of the Reformation faiths) and were formally condemned in the Syllabus of Pope Pius XI. (Rightly so? By and large, yes.) The old liberals, harking back to the pre-liberals, had a strong interest in economics. They were, needless to say, opposed not only to omnipotent government, but also to socialism. (The representatives of the Austrian school of economics were old liberals and significantly, with few exceptions, noblemen.)
Immediately after World War II, the old liberals, joined by “new liberals,” founded the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland. Its leading “brains” –Friedrich A. v. Hayek, Ludwig v. Mises, and Wilhelm Roepke – wanted to call it “de Tocqueville-Acton Society,” whereupon Professor Frank Knight of Chicago protested violently against naming the Society after “two Roman Catholic aristocrats.” It was finally called “Mont Pelerin Society” after the hotel where the first meeting took place.
The neo-liberals were largely Christian-inspired and took their cue from the early liberals. Thus we see the linking of number one with three and number four with two. Many of the outstanding neo-liberals were Germans and Austrians who had experienced the Third Reich and frequently saw the importance for looking for eternal values in the Christian message (F.A. v. Hayek, too, finally realized the importance of religion in the quest for freedom). The Mont Pelerin Society suffered a severe schism when the neo-liberals walked out in 1961.
In the United States I could observe the perversion of the term “liberal,” which caused real liberals to call themselves “libertarians.” The large, hospitable house of liberalism kept all its windows and doors open, and thus the winds from outside could pervade the building. As a good liberal, one has to be open-minded, to respect the “signs of the times” –and these, unfortunately, were leftist and collectivistic. Thus self-confessed liberals became illiberal. The American Mercury, then editorially managed by Eugene Lyons, published a series of “Creeds”: the “Creed of a Conservative,” the “Creed of a Reactionary,” the “Creed of a Socialist,” and then, separately, the “Creed of an Old-fashioned Liberal,” and the “Creed of a New Liberal.” Needless to say, the latter was leaning toward socialism and the omnipotent state. When I speak in Asia, in South America, Africa, Australia, or Europe, I have no trouble in identifying myself as a liberal. In the United States, where time-honored expressions are so easily confounded, I have to begin with explanations. Too bad!