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The Anatomy of Antiliberalism

by stephen holmes 

harvard university press, 330 pages, $29.95

As the 1990s bring us the recrudescence of many unfulfilled progressive enthusiasms from the 1970s, we may begin to understand that the intervening Reagan decade was indeed an exceptional period of American political and intellectual life. With that rhetorically gifted President setting the cultural tone, public men retreated headlong from programs tainted with “the L-word.” Above the political fray, meanwhile, a diverse band of “communitarians” rigorously challenged liberal political and moral theories. Liberalism was accused of atomizing society into a collection of anomic individuals, and of promoting secularism, materialism, and various other isms understood to be the pathologies of modernity. Indeed, liberalism was found to undermine the conditions necessary for genuine friendship and for the moral life. Surprisingly, unlike the conservatives who originally espoused many of these views, the communitarians were attended to respectfully by many academic spokesmen for liberalism.

Stephen Holmes’ book is a response to this new intellectual strain of arguments against liberalism. The book begins with a series of chapters analyzing what he takes to be a representative sample of “antiliberal” thinkers: the dark genius of the Counter—enlightenment, Joseph de Maistre; Carl Schmitt, the German constitutional theorist implicated in the Third Reich; the German-born Jewish historian of ideas, Leo Strauss; historian Christopher Lasch; Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre; and Roberto Unger, a radical legal theorist at Harvard. Holmes wants to demonstrate that for all their differences, these men belong to a single “antiliberal tradition,” a tradition dangerously wrong in its understanding of political life. His purpose is to vindicate the liberal tradition—from Locke and Montesquieu to Madison and Mill—and refute the erroneous arguments of the antiliberals. Holmes engages his subject intelligently and artfully, but in the end his own attitudes underline the cogency of many elements in the antiliberal argument.

Holmes’ fairness in his account of his antagonists is immediately called into question by his decision to begin with Maistre and Schmitt. For Maistre—one of the greatest stylists in the French language—a veritable anti-Voltaire, could never resist the temptation to epater les bourgeoisie; his writing is filled with provocative, extremist aphorisms. Maistre is also maddeningly complex, with some of his darkest thoughts appearing in works published only after his death. Yet Holmes builds his case primarily on these posthumous works. To claim this singular thinker as the fount of any tradition is dubious in itself. Nor does Holmes ever actually argue that his subjects can be said to have influenced one another; “guilt” is simply inferred from ideological affinity. Schmitt’s prominent place in Holmes’ antiliberal canon, on the other hand, directly confronts us with the suggestion that antiliberalism is essentially linked with fascism. And this takes us to the heart of Holmes’ project.

Holmes repeatedly claims he is not trying to identify contemporary antiliberalism—the communitarians—with fascism, but the claim is disingenuous. He does distinguish between “hard” and “soft” antiliberals, but it happens that the three deceased antiliberals he discusses are all “hard” while his three living specimens are all “soft.” Holmes clearly intends to present contemporary critics of liberalism with a great decision: either they recognize that their antiliberalism is so “soft” that it amounts to a mere quibble within liberalism, or they persist in their posture of total critique, in which case they must acknowledge fascism as an elder brother; nothing in between is possible. Since he bears them no ill will, Holmes certainly hopes the communitarians will embrace the former option: liberalism will be all in all. This impulse to what we might call liberal totalism arises from Holmes’ apparent belief that all true antiliberalisms are vicious, and all true virtues are the property of liberalism.

To attract the communitarians to liberal orthodoxy, then, Holmes denies that liberalism is a complete theory of man that encourages a particular range of virtues and modes of life and rules out others. Instead, he presents liberalism as a minimal set of noncontroversial practices to which no one could reasonably object. He thus directs our attention away from the social criticism at which the antiliberals excel and raises questions about political institutions. In a discussion of MacIntyre, for example, he writes, “Modern liberal societies glorify instrumental relations between human beings, we are told [by MacIntyre], as if the abolition of slavery was a negligible affair.” This is Holmes at his best and worst, for while abolition was no small achievement, Holmes must know perfectly well that this is not responsive to MacIntyre’s point. In context, this formulation would seem to imply that for Holmes any noninstrumental relation is slavery. Holmes thus reveals a perspective closely resembling that of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her much-criticized discussion of marriage and family life. Such an equation of noninstrumental human relations with slavery reveals precisely the intellectual and moral corruption that the antiliberals argue necessarily arises within liberal society.

Moreover, any list of “liberal” political practices and institutions is controversial. Is equal protection of the laws a liberal practice? Or is it simply a good practice that has been an element of good political theories and regimes through most of Western history? Alternatively, is the abortion license a liberal practice? Is no-fault divorce? If they are, then reasonable men and women can clearly object to liberal practices as much as to liberal theories. On the one hand, we see here that Holmes claims both too much and too little in his account of liberal practices. On the other hand, Holmes stretches credulity when he tries so completely to dissociate liberal practices from any theoretical foundation: has there ever been a political movement as bound up with self-conscious abstract theorizing as liberalism?

In the second part of this book Holmes addresses what he takes to be the permanent structure of antiliberal thought, dissecting in turn the charges against liberalism of atomization, moral skepticism, and selfishness that he has uncovered in the writings of the antiliberals. In these chapters he pursues two strategies to defend liberalism. Against those who understand it to be anarchically individualistic and hostile to all authority and to the common good, Holmes argues that liberalism is in fact constructive of community: it is not hostile to authority per se but only to “illegitimate” authority. (This of course begs the highly theoretical and hotly contested question of what constitutes legitimacy.) He argues, moreover, that if liberal society does coincidentally encourage certain social evils, these are inextricably bound up with the fundamental political goods that liberalism alone has secured; such discrete evils must therefore be tolerated. This line of argument is not original, but it remains the most persuasive defense available to liberalism in the Anglo-American world. Where this defense is open to question is in its boast of liberal uniqueness in securing the indispensable political good of domestic peace.

This question comes to light when Holmes turns to history. Here he protests an antiliberal habit of “antonym substitution,” in which original oppositions formulated to further liberal purposes (rights vs. arbitrary rule) are transposed into new contrarieties that place the liberal position in a less flattering light (rights vs. duties). He argues plaintively that such substitutions result in bad history. Without historical context, he says, it becomes impossible to understand the “moral motivation” of the early liberal theorists, who among other things first embraced the idea of individual rights. (At no point, of course, does Holmes address seriously, much less sympathetically, the moral motivation behind the antiliberals’ rejection of rights-talk.)

Holmes then repairs to the seventeenth century to provide a context congenial for the defense of liberalism. There, amidst a welter of confusing tendencies and mixed causes, he educes the old story of the struggle between absolutism and parliamentary government and between obscurantist confessional states and enlightened secular toleration: without liberalism, wars of religion. At one point, Holmes claims that the antiliberal tradition is merely repetitive, never developing. Whether or not this is true, Holmes’ own understanding of the liberal tradition seems to amount to an endless repetition of the eighteenth-century charge against the parties in the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

Yet by Holmes’ own account, alluding to the summum malum of seventeenth-century religious war constitutes a dubious defense of liberalism, for he himself begins the antiliberal tradition with Maistre (1753–1821) rather than with the patriarchalist advocate of hereditary kingship, Robert Filmer (1588–1653), or the champion of the divine right claims of Louis XIV, Bishop Bossuet (1627–1704). If context is called for, many antiliberals might well agree that the liberal theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had more convincing arguments than their opponents. That historical judgment says nothing about the disputes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the disputes in which Holmes’ antiliberals are engaged. The decisive “argument” for liberalism appears to rest on anachronism.

Returning to the present, Holmes writes that he finds communitarian antiliberalism necessarily dangerous because the group identities celebrated in communitarian theories must be formed by making a “friend-foe” distinction, a term of art from Schmitt. Whether or not this correctly describes the communitarian project, Holmes either fails to understand or refuses to recognize that his own position rests on a friend-foe distinction. His world is radically divided between liberals and antiliberals. On one side we find reasonable secular cosmopolitans such as Stephen Holmes, and on the other we find everyone else—notably, the “ethnic workers” championed by Christopher Lasch. Holmes doesn’t even take the trouble to ask any ethnic workers what they think about political and social questions; he knows a priori that they are given to racism, sexism, and other atavisms. What particularly horrifies him is that such reactionary populations have in the 1980s found theoretical champions from among the liberal classes.

Thus, Holmes might meaningfully be described as an “anti-communitarian,” for he often seems positively to loathe the spirit of settled community enjoyed by groups such as the ethnic workers. While he does not seek to destroy his “foe” through violence, he does seem to hope that “irreversible social processes” will eliminate the basis for their Gemeinschaft altogether. In the event that the tide of history might fail, liberals like Holmes have resort to (re-)education in the public school monopoly and ultimately to the coercive enforcement of novel individual “rights” against communities that seek to defend their norms through democratic legislation. Holmes emphasizes the priority of practices and political institutions: the sovereign political institution for all contemporary liberal theorists is the undemocratic judiciary, that branch of government most completely controlled by those who share a liberal understanding of the good life. A liberalism that has devolved in practice into an oligarchy of those whose values are seriously questioned by the majority of a nation’s citizens is eminently deserving of criticism. In fin de siecle America, “antiliberal” voices are needed to remind us that liberal values are themselves dangerously irresponsible unless supported by non-liberal virtues. 

Mark C. Henrie is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Harvard University.