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Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [Hardcover]

Edmund Fawcett

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Book Description

4 May 2014

Liberalism dominates today's politics just as it decisively shaped the past two hundred years of American and European history. Yet there is striking disagreement about what liberalism really means and how it arose. In this engrossing history of liberalism--the first in English for many decades--veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

Using a broad idea of liberalism, the book discusses celebrated thinkers from Constant and Mill to Berlin, Hayek, and Rawls, as well as more neglected figures. Its twentieth-century politicians include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Willy Brandt, but also Hoover, Reagan, and Kohl. The story tracks political liberalism from its beginnings in the 1830s to its long, grudging compromise with democracy, through a golden age after 1945 to the present mood of challenge and doubt.

Focusing on the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, the book traces how the distinct traditions of these countries converged on the practice of liberal democracy. Although liberalism has many currents, Fawcett suggests that they are held together by shared commitments: resistance to power, faith in social progress, respect for people's chosen enterprises and beliefs, and acceptance that interests and faiths will always conflict.

An enlightening account of a vulnerable but critically important political creed, Liberalism will be a revelation for readers who think they already know--for good or ill--what liberalism is.

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"[A] richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts. . . . [Fawcett] takes a commendably liberal approach."--Alan Wolfe, New York Times Book Review

"[A] comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. . . . [T]his is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis. . . . A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end."--Kirkus Reviews

"[Liberalism: The Life of an Idea] confirms the virtues of the disciplined generalist's approach to the exploration of politics. Deftly combining history, economic thought, and political theory, Fawcett has produced the sort of synoptic work that in our era is increasingly unlikely to come from universities. . . . [It] not only draws on the practicing journalist's close observation of political affairs but also the educated person of letters' facility across many disciplines. The result is an engrossing narrative of liberalism's dramatic career--often lustrous but also marked by its share of delusion, hypocrisy, hubris, and tragedy."--Peter Berkowitz, Real Clear Politics

"Liberalism by Edmund Fawcett is not only a gripping piece of intellectual history, it also equips the reader to understand today's threats--and how they might be withstood. . . . Liberalism is indeed under siege. Those who would fortify the walls would do well to study the foundations. Mr Fawcett's book offers an admirable archaeology."--Economist

"A book so good I want to read it again. . . . [A]n intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas."--David Goodhart, Standpoint

"In Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Fawcett draws on the experiences and ideas of dozen of thinkers and politicians in an informative, lively, and provocative history of a political tradition he deems 'worth standing up for.'. . . Fawcett's book is an immensely interesting, informative, and important assessment of liberalism. . . . Liberalism is as relevant as ever, Fawcett concludes, passionately and persuasively."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

"[An] impressive account of the 'life of an idea.'. . . [O]ne of the many virtues of Fawcett's unfailingly stimulating book is that he makes you look past the misleading labels with which we characterise political argument. For anyone interested in the history of the ideas that have shaped our society, his book is essential reading."--Simon Shaw, Mail on Sunday

"[A] fine work of intellectual history that shows, among much else, that experience can shape ideas, too."--William Anthony Hay

"[M]agnificent."--Bruce Edward Walker, Morning Sun

From the Inside Flap

"In this wonderfully fluent tour through the history of modern liberal thinking, Edmund Fawcett examines a generous selection of important thinkers from the 1830s to our own time in a way that locates both the lineage of their political thinking and the politics of their times. Sharp analysis is combined with a compelling narrative of serious thinkers at work. There is much to learn in this book, which is truly a joy to read. He makes judgments, but they are aids, not substitutes, for our own thinking about liberalism as an idea and about its present possibilities."--Thomas Bender, New York University

"Liberalism: The Life of an Idea possesses both the authority made possible by sustained scholarly research, and the clarity and simplicity found in first-rate journalism. It covers two centuries of the history of a principle guiding political practice and the various philosophies that have attempted to justify or defame it. It is a very timely reminder of the achievements and problems of a political tradition now everywhere under siege."--Gareth Stedman Jones, University of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London

"Elegant, fluently written, and wryly amusing, this enlightening history of liberalism tells a persuasive story of ideas and politics through the lives of a huge variety of characters. The result is tremendously enjoyable."--Duncan Kelly, author of The Propriety of Liberty

"This is, quite simply, one of the most lively and engaging books that I've read in some time. With a brisk narrative that holds the reader's attention from start to finish, Liberalism provides a comprehensive survey of the subject, introducing a remarkable diversity of people and ideas, and offering a creative reconsideration of familiar tensions. It is impossible to imagine a reader who wouldn't learn much from it. I certainly did."--Ryan Patrick Hanley, author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything You Wanted to Know About Liberalism and More. 10 Jun 2014
By The Peripatetic Reader - Published on
Identifying myself as liberal all my life, I went through life thinking I knew what liberalism was all about and knew the difference between liberal and conservative politicians and philosophy. How wrong I was. Shortly after starting this book I soon realized how little I really knew and how complex the liberal political philosophy really is.

Western liberalism is a package of ideals born from the French Revolution. Yet it really does not matter your political viewpoint, anyone could find something to relish from reading this book. Anyone with more than a passing interest in political science should purchase, read, and digest this book. Fawcett discusses the main exponents of the liberal political philosophy from the vantage of biography, to history, to historical analysis, to political philosophy, to a history of ideas, and navigates effortlessly to and from each of these aspects with total command.

Edmund Fawcett, a correspondent for the Economist magazine, which in the interests of disclosure, he states started as a leading proponent of the liberal philosophy, has produced a text which demystifies the sometimes confusing and contradictory world of liberal political thought. There is a cavalcade of liberal expositors, thinkers, philosophers, political scientists, social movements, and historical trends, but Fawcett is able, perhaps for the first time, the explain these many diverse elements into a coherent package. Through the book Fawcett displays a unique ability to simply and clearly explain complex philosophical or political philosophies.

One of the mistakes I fell into which the book clarified was associating "left" with "liberal" and "right" with "conservative." Part of this error originates from the "core values" Fawcett ascribes to the liberal philosophy. Those core values are

* the acknowledgment of ethical and material conflict in society

* a distrust of authority or power

* faith in human progress and

* an abiding respect of people and their belief regardless to belief or creed.

The boundaries of theses values are malleable and flexible, which not only allows the liberal philosophy to change with changing conditions, but enables it to accommodate divergent philosophies or policies, from the New Dealers of FDR's administration believing in aggressive government social and economic intervention to neoliberal such as Hayek who supported a laissez faire attitude on steroids to economic markets.

These values change in sometimes horrific ways. In its second stage, liberalism made what Fawcett calls its "accommodation" with the ruling powers. This accommodation produced the beginnings of welfare systems in Germany, but also partnered the liberal philosophy with Western Imperialism, from which it has never completely been released.

Incidentally, Fawcett's book appears to resolve an on-going debate between humanistic and structuralistic Marxists as to whether ideas precede human action or vice versa. Fawcett's book demonstrates the incredible power of ideas and how they can ignite human actions. He describes a symposium presided by Walter Lippman during the Great Depression, where the leading liberal intellectuals discussed alternatives to the direction liberalism was taking at the time. It was at this symposium during the Thirties that the term "Neo-Liberalism" was coined and where its main tenants were outlined. Hayek, the recognized father of Neo-Liberalism was one of the speakers at this symposium. The seeds of Neo-Liberalism lay dormant for thirty years before it appeared in the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, testimony to power of ideas in general and liberalism's dynamism in particular.

This is a heady read, mainly because it is a heady subject. But the task of making sense of the many directions liberalism has taken is made easier by Fawcett's command of the subject and the ease in which he describes its twists and turns. The result is a highly readable text, great summer read, which educates as well as entertains.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking At Liberalism 15 July 2014
By Steven J Kurvink - Published on
Fawcett has written an excellent book that will be greatly appreciated by anyone with an interest in liberalism. While the book is a work of serious scholarship, it is quite readable and its appeal will not be limited to the academic audience. Nonetheless, it is a lengthy book that goes into considerable depth and detail. Be prepared to invest some time as Fawcett narrates the story of liberalism in both theory and practice.
I have always accepted the conventional wisdom that liberalism is a philosophy of liberty. An argument that liberty is the paramount political value and that the primary purpose of government is the protection of individual rights and liberties. Fawcett argues from the outset that "it's more than liberty". he identifies four "guiding thoughts' that have been essential to liberalism:conflict, resistance to power, progress and respect. Liberals accept that social conflict is inevitable, that people will have different interests and values. Liberals believe that power must be limited. Liberals believe that the lives of people can and should be improved. Finally, liberals believe that all are entitled to dignity and respect.
Some may respond by saying "Well, who can argue with that". Thus, the point should be made that Fawcett is defining liberalism in very broad terms. The liberalism of which he speaks includes a variety of elements, left, right and center. Indeed, his discussions includes figures who are usually characterized as libertarians(Hayek and Friedman), modern liberals(FDR and LBJ) and conservatives(Reagan and Thatcher)
Therein may lie a weakness. If all of the above are liberals, if as Fawcett argues such diverse thinkers as Mill, Hegel, Rawls and Sartre all qualify as liberals, is the liberal tent just a little too big? Then again this a book that offers some rather tasty food for thought.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best read I have found in 20 years 7 July 2014
By billwest - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Best read I have found in 20 years. Truly. I carry it around a lot for reading on the buses. Author's main contention is that there isn't a short definition of Liberalism. No author, no Moses. Political choices and contingency. Practitioners argument, bargaining, compromise. Great author.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a book! 25 Jun 2014
By Shorty 101 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I thought I knew what liberalism was until I read this book . Captivating reading walks thorough the evolution of liberalism , never forgetting to put the main thinkers in prospective
4.0 out of 5 stars It is a good story, picked with interesting details as well 24 July 2014
By Indrek - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
It is a good story, picked with interesting details as well. Particularly enjoyed Guizot`s behavior in Paris, when Herzen asked for his help to get freedom from the police detention. Guizot explained him the principle of separation of powers. Being himself in legislative part, he couldn`t help in executive affairs...
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