Words that think for us: "liberal"

Edward Skidelsky exposes abuses of language
June 21, 2010

When did the American meaning of “liberal” arrive on these shores? Many of my Facebook friends—admittedly not a cross-section of the British population—define themselves as “liberal,” meaning, I suppose, that they hold the approved views on abortion, gay marriage etc, feel bad about being rich, and do not wave the flag during World Cups. Their use of the L-word does not indicate any suspicion of state power or passion for personal liberty, let alone allegiance to the theories of Friedrich Hayek. “Liberal” is the most fissiparous of political labels, its meaning varying across both nations and disciplines. An American liberal is a German social-democrat. A French “neo-liberal” is an American conservative. When economists call themselves liberals they are indicating a preference for market solutions. When political theorists call themselves liberals they are affirming a commitment to individual rights. When post-structuralists use the term—usually in combination with “humanist”—it is with a Marxist sneer of derision. The one sure truth about liberalism is that neither Hitler nor Stalin ever had a friendly word for it. Liberals can take some pride in that. Liberalism was not always so fragmented. It has had a number of distinct facets—religious, political and economic—but its heart was liberty of thought. A liberal was above all free in spirit: without fixed ideas or vested interests, able to enter sympathetically into a multitude of viewpoints. This splendid vision has now faded, leaving in its wake a disparate set of economic and political doctrines. Liberalism is no longer a style but an agenda. How many modern “liberals,” of either the statist or the “neo-” persuasion, would be recognised as such by Lionel Trilling or Isaiah Berlin, let alone Mill or De Tocqueville? There is nothing wrong with linguistic change per se; change is the life of language. But when such change inhibits the expression of permanently valuable thoughts it must be resisted with all possible strength. There is now no word for the intellectual tradition with which I and many others would like to identify ourselves. “Liberal” will not do; it is too sullied, too confused. All we can do is point to certain favoured writers and intellectuals—forerunners in our ongoing guerrilla campaign—and say: “we are with them; we see things their way.”

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