What is liberalism?

Liberalism can mean many things, but for now I just want to focus on the political meaning. Even political liberalism is an extremely broad term. Liberalism is an even broader concept than socialism, conservatism or the popular slur fascism. It can refer to economic liberalism (generally viewed as the economic right) or to a liberal attitude regarding social issues (social progressivism/social and moral leftism) or once upon a time merely the support for constitutionalism as a shield against tyranny whether by an absolute monarch or the majority mob.

It is rather commonly known that liberalism refers to modern liberalism in the US and us associated with the left. This usage seems to have become firmly implanted in Canada as well. Though the rise of real socialism has displaced leftist liberalism in both countries recently. Liberalism has long been viewed as centrist in the UK (thanks Labour) but as secular or moderately progressive right (equivalent of libertarianism in the US) in mainland Europe or Australia.

Liberalism in the US, Canada and the UK refer to Social Liberalism (which again counts as left in the first two and centrist in the third) but by default to classical liberalism in mainland Europe. But this classical liberalism while economically liberal, is expected to automatically be progressive.

It might seem odd to an American that the right could be anything but religious or conservative, that economic liberalism and libertarianism is mixed with social progressivism, that Gary Johnson ideology would have mainstream appeal.

Not only is/was this very common in mainland Europe but with the backlash against Islam, many nationalists in Europe embraced a national (progressive) liberalism that sought to defend feminism and LGBT rights against Islam even as they were supportive of Bush junior (who was anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage).

This was part of a trend to conflate classical liberalism with progressivism and a form of progressive and atomic individualism. This has come under pressure recently. Progressives have embraced transgenderism and sometimes wokeism and Right-wing youth have increasingly embraced conservatism and even proud self-described reactionairism. Secular right-wing adults call themselves cultural Christians, support conservative prelate, praise Benedict XVI (increasingly viewed as the true pope and prisoner pope) rally against abortion, support no fap and so on.[1] Ascetism, tradition, traditional family, they’re all popular amongst right-wing young people who feel disillusioned with materialism and atomic individualism. This has resulted in a backlash against classical liberalism. Especially as so called classical liberal parties have moved further to the left. A return to the French Revolutionary use of the terms left and right, where the left is progressive/modernist and the right traditionalist has become common. Zemmour in France has proudly proclaimed himself a reactionary,[2] Alternative for Germany went from being national liberal to national conservative, Forum For Democracy emphasised secular conservatism in the Netherlands while its youth group openly flirted with reactionairism and Viktor Orbán has become an inspiration to many young nationalists.

This backlash against conservatism has included the assertion that liberal conservative and conservative liberal are oxymorons.  Interestingly enough however, Classical Liberalism, even in the mainland European sense, hasn’t always been linked to progressivism.

The History of Liberalism

Anyone who remembers being taught about liberalism in school, or reading about it on Wikipedia learns about the influence of John Locke and Adam Smith, the economic aspect of liberalism, it’s link to tolerance and various civil liberties and often it is linked to the French Revolution.

Strangely enough the start of liberalism in the political sense, when the term was coined to describe a political ideology in Spain where it referred to the supporters of the constitution of 1812, gets completely ignored.

The ever-brilliant Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn referenced les liberales several times throughout his works. He described the first phase of liberalism, early liberalism which included people such as lexis de Tocqueville and Count Montalembert; the Old Whigs and Robert Southey.[3] This first phase of Liberalism strongly overlapped with Conservatism and only clashed with the most hardcore reactionaries.

All the thinkers who came before 1812 who are now retroactively dubbed liberals were really proto-liberals, adherents of what Kuehnelt-Leddihn described as pre-Liberalism.

As previously described, his early (phase of) liberalism generally gets overlooked along with its antecedents. Instead liberalism is defined based on the second ideological wave to use the name, what Kuehnelt-Leddihn calls Old Liberalism, also described as paleo-Liberalism, a combination of economic liberalism, secularism and moderate progressivism based on limited support for the French Revolution that got popular from the 1840s onward, and its history got selectively expanded to include the inspirations to old liberalism.

As classical liberalism is a retroactive and redefined concept.


Kuehnelt-Leddihn has provided a very insightful approach to history with which he makes it possible to objectively analyse the history of Classical Liberalism outside of the conventional narrative which has developed over the course of history. Kuehnelt-Leddihn loved to show how the conventional view of history adhered to by most people, even most intellectuals, was incorrect both with regards to the details of the facts and the larger conclusions. In his earlier works especially, he even used quotation marks for words which has become misused or misunderstood over time and often substituted the correct terms for them.

Yet with regards to the history of Classical Liberalism, I lament the various view lost opportunities in amending the mainstream history of liberalism. That he did not fully deal with the implications of the fact that many of the people and ideas nowadays associated with the history of Liberalism were not at the time considered Liberals, nor were their ideas the primary inspiration for the first people who were called Liberals during their time, the ones Kuehnelt-Leddihn calls early Liberals. That pre-liberalism is a dubious and subjective concept doesn’t get the focus it deserves.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn partially filled the gaps of this modern historiography by teaching people about the overlooked early liberalism, but while he accurately used the term pre-Liberalism to describe ideologies and thinkers that in hindsight can be (and often are) called Liberal but which existed before Liberalism had become a political term, he strangely enough didn’t reference John Locke as an antecedent, not the link between pre-liberalism and the moderate enlightenment.

He also only dealt with the for, pre-liberalism that inspired old/paleo-liberalism (Smith, Voltaire, Burke ironically; economic liberalism and anti-statism), but not the trends that influenced early liberalism (Montesquieu, Kant; separation of powers, constitutionalism, mixed government, protection of private property, tolerance). He basically ignored the fact that there were two forms of proto/pre-liberalism, one which inspired the early liberals the other the old/paleo-liberals. Instead he said pre-liberalism influenced old liberalism.

This requires one to exclude Montesquieu from the pre-liberals, an impossibility. The Spanish Liberals and their 1812 constitution borrowed heavily from Montesquieu, supporting a strong monarchy with full executive power and the ability to veto laws, yet working within the framework of a tripartite separation of powers and constitutionally guaranteed citizens’ rights. It defined Catholicism as the stare religion. It is generally regarded as a conservative liberal constitution.

The first people to be called liberals in the political sense were conservative, not progressive liberals. In fact, the Spanish Liberals had opposed the French Revolution.

Going further than Leddihn

Such details are unfortunately overlooked by Leddihn. While he focused on the fact that the early liberals (and the Founding Fathers) were highly critical of majoritarian democracy, he didn’t comment on the fact that the same was true for Montesquieu and Kant who gave us the trias politica and the rechtsstaat and while he referenced the conservative liberal tendencies of the old Whigs, he didn’t delve into the fact that their transformation into radical leftist liberals was accompanied by a change of attitude regarding the French Revolution, nor how the various forms of the enlightenment inspired the various stages of the French Revolution, or the differences between Montesquieu and Voltaire which added nuances even within the moderate enlightenment.

Most importantly, he didn’t delve into how liberalism became mixed with (moderate) progressivism as the nineteenth century progressed, how this strengthened its affiliation with leftism in thee yes of traditionalists, nor how radical liberalism, sometimes simply called radicalism, paved the way for more egalitarian forms of liberalism.

As noted in Giralt’s article on Hybrid regimes, contsitutional and majoritarian democracy are two concepts that are naturally in conflict rather than complementary. The former taking inspiration from Montesquieu and Kant, the latter from Rousseau.

The attempt to reconcile the two was part of the spirit of the revolutions of 1848, which did not devolve into the horrors of the reign of terror, yet were to the left of the American War of Independence (commonly called the American Revolution) or the Spanish Liberals.

This liberalism, which promoted liberal democracy, came to dominate Europe, and slowly became more egalitarian as universal suffrage spread. Its linking of Capitalism to democracy has been largely successful, yet laisser-faire has bitten the dust almost everywhere.

Early Liberalism, was not dogmatically laisser-faire, it was not primarly inspired by Smith or Locke. It took inspiration from the most Conservative Enlightenment thinkers but also from Christian tradition. It has a rich forgotten history that deserves to be revalued.

To be continued…

Johan van Schaik


  1. Thierry Baudet pleit voor herwaardering christendom, cip.nl, 15 February 2017
  2. Calvi, Yves (10 September 2018). “”Je suis nostalgique et réactionnaire”, confie Éric Zemmour”. RTL
  3. https://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-2-number-4/four-liberalisms

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