Can Liberalism and Socialism Co-Exist? A Lesson from the New Liberals

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ABSTRACT: This article was written based off a year and a half worth of research and synthesis that culminated in an award-winning senior history thesis from Brown University. Over the course of that effort, I sought for the very foundation of what being a liberal truly means. The focus on which drew me to the New Liberals, who represent an important yet often forgotten chapter in Liberalism’s modern history. A reaction to the hyper-individualism of Bentham and Mill, the New Liberals offer a powerful insight into how Liberalism has evolved so as to invoke meaningful change. Today, they offer powerful lessons for the progressive left and those anxious over the change they profess.

On the eve of the 2020 election, the identity of the Democratic party is undeniably
fractionated. One reason for this immense competition is that it comes in the wake of Bernie
Sanders remarkable 2016 campaign. Four years ago, Sanders’ progressive message – based on
stronger regulations, single-payer healthcare, and free college – profoundly resonated with many
Americans. This fact has transformed the political left. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have
developed their own wing in the Democratic party, which many of their competitors believe their
distinct moderate view can beat. Yet, for the average voter, it remains difficult to name the
ideology of Sanders and Warren. One quickly becomes lost in a sea of “socialism,” “social-
democracy,” “democratic-socialist” as well as other ideological word spaghetti. The challenge to
untangle these terms has been recently taken up by major media outlets in an effort to clarify
their differences. However, in the end, such an exercise is more pedantic than it is helpful, as it
circles around the same key anxiety without ever addressing it directly. Can socialism and
liberalism really ever co-exist without tyranny? Is it worth risking our democracy for all that the
Sanders and the Warrens seem to promise? These are daunting questions. It is fair to simply stop
here and accept the fact that we simply do not know. However, the beautiful thing most
historians come to realize is that such dramas usually have played out before. This case is no
In 1911, a man named Leonard T. Hobhouse published a slim book titled Liberalism. In
it, Hobhouse articulated his vision for what he called Liberal Socialism. His work came at the
peak of liberal power in Britain, just five years after a landslide victory. Their rein founded the
modern welfare state that lives on in Britain today. Yet, just two decades prior, such a liberal
victory would have been unimaginable. This is because, in 1886, when conservatives took power
in Britain, it eviscerated the old liberal vanguard whose ideology defined the last century of
British policy. Unbeknownst to them, this was a necessary crop burning. With the traditionalists
gone, a fringe liberal movement filled the vacuum. For the older generation now relegated to the
side-lines, this must have been terrifying to watch. As Hobhouse’s Liberalism demonstrated, this
group had no regard for laissez-faire policy or established economics, worse yet, they
condemned empiricism, imperialism, and Utilitarianism. Everything that had been preached as
liberal creed suddenly got tossed out the window. It must have felt like a gamble that would
either destroy the party forever or usher in a new, unrecognizable era of Liberalism.
Deservingly so, this group called themselves the New Liberals, and they appealed to a
dramatically different notion of liberal progress. Profits, power, and expansion were turned in for
more abstract benchmarks, such as social harmony, self-realization, and collective progress. In
their ranks were notable intellectuals, academics, journalists, and politicians, who flooded Britain
with newspaper articles, books, lectures, and speeches for over two decades. Undoubtedly, the
public not only listened to them but resonated with their message. It was on the back of their
promises, that the Liberal party won in 1906 – people were ready to see if their theories made for
good policy.
When Leonard T. Hobhouse published his seminal work, Liberalism, his contemporaries
placed him within the ranks of Locke, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. This veneration in part
came from how Hobhouse developed his notion of “Economic Liberalism.” Unlike Marxism, the
New Liberals did not believe the state had all the answers, but it was critical to maintain a free
space for human creativity, especially in the economy. If the state in Marxism was like the brain
of the body, for the New Liberals, it was the immune system. It maintained the liberal conditions
of freedom, equality, and justice, constantly evolving to better execute on this task. Now, this
physiological metaphor actually found use in the fin-de-siècle. Often, these liberal radicals spoke
of Britain’s organic decay, of something which plagued their community and threatened the
mortality of the nation. Yet, there was no singular face to this disease. After decades of debate
over the “Jewish Question” or the “Negro Question” by the elite of British Society, the New
Liberals recognized the problem to be systematic and internal. The rot stemmed from the
foundation of their society rather than some external or imagined threat.
Leonard Hobhouse’s book came at the end of New Liberal thought, not the beginning. It
expressed a half-century worth of philosophy, sociology, and politics, all of which sought to
identify Liberalism’s Achilles’ heel and fix it. In retrospect, the culprit is obvious. Today, one
must only recall a number of Dicken’s characters, from Scrooge to the Oliver Twist, to imagine
it. The New Liberals argued that economic inequality based on false liberal principles and
magnified by laissez-faire policy had poisoned society. Poverty and monopolies reflected the
nation’s physical symptoms, while avarice and melancholy disrupted its psychology. Worse yet,
nothing in British discourse could adequately offer relief, as it all relied on the same damaging
foundation. The New Liberals needed new ingredients free from any homegrown contamination
to create their social antidote. To find them, they searched outside of Britain and to the forefather
of socialist philosophy.
When the Liberals lost in 1886, it was a national rejection of Classical Liberalism. With
the options of plutocracy or socialist revolution, the New Liberals offered Britain a third route.
Based on the same German Idealism that influenced Marx, the New Liberals argued that society
exists not as a molecule but as “a living fabric.” Humans are not atoms, but rather, as Aristotle
pointed out millennia ago, social creatures. The work of G.W.F. Hegel argued that from birth to
death, social interactions do not simply connect individuals together but fundamentally define
our each person’s identity and subjectivity. The New Liberals planted the fruits of Liberalism,
equality, freedom, and justice, into this new philosophy so as to save them.
Through Hegel’s influence, the New Liberals created a novel raison d’etre for Liberalism
that bridged philosophy and politics. The results were dramatic. For the human condition to
improve, individual growth and collective progress were bound into a single project. This
demanded that all citizens work to ensure freedom, equality, and justice for each other. Not for
altruism’s sake, but because such a society enhanced everyone’s public and private life. This
sentiment oriented the New Liberal’s project, especially Hobhouse’s “Economic Liberalism.”
Hobhouse saw welfare, poor laws, and public education not as charity, but as a society investing
in itself. The working class needed such a “stimulus” to realize their potential for everyone’s
benefit, including the wealthy’s. Regulations, on the other hand, protected citizens from the
economic tyranny of one another or a corporation, and higher taxes on the rich reflected a
balance between personal reward and social benefit. All of this policy developed from Hegel’s
philosophy on the human condition. Because of this, New Liberal reforms always situated
themselves within a larger mosaic of future progress.
The New Liberals offer insight to that question on America’s mind today. They
demonstrate that neither liberalism nor socialism are homogenous ideologies nor mutually
exclusive. Socialist thought can be benevolently incorporated into liberalism if it enhances
liberal values rather than diminishes them. In the end, the New Liberals saw reform, not
revolution, as the vehicle of progress. Today, when one voyages into the sea of ideological soup,
it is prudent to recognize our own anxieties over “socialists” and analyze each platform presented
to us in earnest. On the other hand, for modern Democrats fending off the radicals like Bernie
Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the figure of the Classical Liberals offers another important
message. Their unwillingness to incorporate the New Liberal’s message into the mainstream,
especially when it resonated with British society at large, led to not only the greatest
conservative victory of the century but their own demise in British political history. It is
important for the Left to take note from the New Liberals because, in 2020, one might just be
surprised at who's holding the winning ticket after all.


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