The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

Subscribe to know when the next post comes out!

(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at Mises.org. At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”

(Source: https://mises.org/library/what-fascism)

(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.