Liberalism and Definitions

Giulio Ercolessi – LibMov

This is the text of a lecture held at the Southern European School of Liberalism, organised in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, on September 27th - 28th 2013, by the European Liberal Forum, with the support of the Galician think tank Galidem, of the Portuguese Movimento Liberal Social, of the Forum for Greece and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. It is largely a replica  – with small adaptations – of a similar speech held within the two-day training on “Party structures, articulation of a vision, campaigning and internal party democracy and integrity”, organised in Parenzo/Poreč, Istria, Croatia, on June 29th - July 1st 2012, by the International Democratic Initiative, ELDR, the National Democratic Institute and LIBSEEN (Liberal South East European Network). An Italian translation of this lecture, by Francesco Cuccù and revised by the author, was published in the appendix to Giulio Ercolessi’s book on the Italian constitutional reform introduced by the Renzi government, “Sfascismo costituzionale. Come uscire vivi da un azzardo politico temerario. Una proposta liberale”, Ariccia (Roma) 2015.

Una traduzione italiana di questa conferenza, a cura di Francesco Cuccù e rivista dall’autore, compare ora in appendice al volume di Giulio Ercolessi “Sfascismo costituzionale. Come uscire vivi da un azzardo politico temerario. Una proposta liberale”, Ariccia (Roma) 2015.

1) The beginning

«Every man has a property in his own person».

If it were not for the total lack of gender neutrality in this sentence (but until a few decades ago nobody would care), one could think that we are dealing here with such biopolitical issues as abortion, gay rights or euthanasia.

These issues were far away from the interests of the man who first wrote this sentence, a man of the 17th century, who, as all the people of his time, would likely not be in tune with today’s liberal positions on these issues. It was John Locke, in his Second treatise of government (1690), that probably set the birth of proto-liberalism as a political theory. What is telling is how this principle can still produce ever more profound effects on the ever changing problems of our time: the «property in his own person», that was first, at least de facto, meant for the male, adult, white, mostly well-to-do, protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, native citizen, is in fact now the more and more obvious domain of universal rights.

Property itself was given by Locke the very political role of a defence against the king’s absolute power. And that political – and not merely economic – role has proved to be as much important in the 20th century. The experience of communism has confirmed that a free society can only be a polyarchic society, in which the holder of political power does not also hold most of the economic power and power over the media. And the self-determination of what Locke called “every man” – i.e. every individual – is today, too, the centre of liberal concern.

To an extent, liberalism has so deeply shaped, more than any other ideology, the very fabric of the Western civilization in the contemporary age, that nowadays liberalism and Europe, liberalism and the Western political civilization, almost identify.

Hence, defining liberalism is more difficult than before.

2) A definition

Is a definition necessary?

I think it is in order to have a critical control on one’s own language, but we cannot expect it to be a prescriptive definition: it can only be a proposal, not the prescription of a particular use.

And I think a definition is also necessary in order to avoid confusion. Otherwise, if we accepted to define as liberal whomsoever adopted the label, we should include in our family, for example, the antisemitic and anti-Western Russian party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the so-called “Russian liberal-democratic party”. (And, to the shame of us Italian liberals, Berlusconi too, who sometimes describes himself as liberal – and his non-liberal opponents have let him do so for twenty years).

There are other difficulties.

1. Political definitions also carry very subjective, non-rational understandings. Think, for example, of the different resonance and understanding that the words that define the principal political ideologies have, depending on the personal opinions of different individuals. Norberto Bobbio quoted the example of the word “communism”, synonymous with deprivation of all individual liberties and of generalised misery for most of us, and synonymous for earthly paradise for millions of committed communists decades ago.

National traditions also may bring about misunderstandings. European integration and globalisation itself would obviously require a joint vocabulary, but all political speech is rooted in different linguistic and historical traditions.

One year ago, I was at an ELF seminar in Prague. The audience was mostly composed of Central and Eastern Europeans from former communist countries; three of the speakers in one of the panels were Western Europeans – a Frenchman, a German and myself. When we used the word “federalism”, we were naturally thinking of the US, of Switzerland, of the success story of the Federal Republic of Germany; but we realized that for the audience that word was linked to totally different historical experiences: the Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, communist Czechoslovakia.

And another example of such misunderstandings is typical of this part of Europe: here the word “nationalism” bears today a very peculiar meaning, if compared to the rest of Western Europe. It is not a more moderate form of “chauvinism” or “jingoism”, but is related to the request of self-determination of parts of the Spanish state, traditionally deprived of their democratic rights by a centralistic and for centuries authoritarian power. Yet, if you asked an average learned and cultivated European what can be described as “nationalist” in the contemporary history of Spain, this person would quite obviously think of the Franco regime, rather than of any democratic movement.

2. The thing liberalism (unlike, for example, mainstream socialism) was born before its theory. The theory was formulated after a number of demands for political reform, economic reform, religious reform, social reform, produced a melting pot of new ideas and institutions during the “Great Rebellion” of XVII century England. The new form of government finally arisen from the “Glorious Revolution” towards the end of the century, despite all its contradictions, was the only relevant and real alternative to the opposite model of that time, the French “solar monarchy”, that had been a reference for all the major European countries.

3. Thing and theory were both born before the name was born. Perhaps surprisingly, the word “liberal”, as a way to qualify a political stance, was born in Spain, at the time of the Cortes de Cádiz, in 1810-12, when a parliamentary assembly was drafting the first Spanish constitution, protected by a British fleet; and when, very tellingly, a “servile party” – “partido servil” – was opposed to a “partido liberal”.

4. Liberalism (unlike socialism – at least at its beginning) does not coincide with one single philosophy: it has always been a philosophically polygamist (libertine in the trivial sense of the word), merely political theory, that married with empiricism, the Enlightenment, Kant’s criticism, idealism, positivism, instrumentalism, and with the most diverse “analytic and “continental” contemporary philosophies; and also with libertinism, rationalism, atheism, some very important Protestant theological currents since its birth – and even with some minority brands of Catholicism.

5.  Liberalism largely coincides with a civilization, despite countless contradictions, and yet has a universalistic vocation. It is not the common fruit of the Western civilization as a whole, even though it grew on some typically Western cultural depositories.

Some of these depositories deserve to be mentioned. A) The Greek classical philosophical tradition and the political thought and “constitutionalism” of the Antiquity, as reassessed, re-appropriated by scholars and revitalized since the Renaissance. B) The heritage of Roman Law and Common Law: i.e. the rule of law, gradually led by liberal constitutionalism to cover even the production of new laws under the judicial review of ordinary or constitutional courts (this connection between liberalism and legal traditions, practices and theories is often underestimated by historians, political philosophers, and even political scientists, perhaps because outside their academic focus). C) Conflict among political and religious powers, that forced Western Europeans, throughout their history, to take side in political, religious and politico-religious struggles. Conflict entails differentiations. At a time when these differentiations were believed to involve individual salvation or perdition, the personal choice of the Western individual, whose loyalty was contended by Popes and Emperors, became crucial. D) Hence, also, arose the new Western idea of the individual, especially born in the Ancient Low Countries and in Northern and Central Italy in the late Middle Ages and well visible in the material culture and in the figurative arts and literature of both regions. E) The central role and the incoercibility of individual conscience, born with Christianity and empowered by the rift caused by the Reformation. F) The disenchantment of the medieval world ­– also an unintentionally joint result of both libertinism and the Reformation ­– (that forced to a smaller extent also the Catholic church of the Counterreformation to rationalise its doctrine and impose a sharp resizing to spontaneous and superstitious popular faith, at least in those areas where the Protestant challenge was most dangerous) and the birth of modern science. G) Tolerance, as a lesson taught to us by religious wars.

But liberalism – and tolerance as a value, and not as the consequence of the impotence of power to crush dissent – is basically a Dutch, English, American and French product, that proved capable in the last three centuries of being introduced, transplanted, copied, adapted, sometimes even improved, in very different cultural and political environments. This historical expansion of liberalism beyond its original boundaries can be seen today as a promising precedent for regions where new totalitarian or fundamentalist threats seem to be on the rise.

This process is particularly evident in the history of the Italian Risorgimento, when both moderate and radical liberals mostly shared the idea that the civic backwardness of 19th century Italy was largely a consequence of the political predominance of the Roman Church: Italian patriotism at the time was largely nourished by the leyenda negra of Counterreformation Spain, that had ruled over a large part of Italy, especially in the 17th century, and by the positive opposite examples of British parliamentarianism, of the French secularist principles of ’89, sometimes of Swiss federalism and – in the eyes of the most far-sighted – of the new-born and at the time far-off American democracy. But the British and later the American examples had been an extremely important reference even for French liberal-minded thinkers before and after the Revolution: just think of Montesquieu, of Voltaire’s Lettres anglaises, of Constant, of Guizot and of Tocqueville. And in Spain, too, the British example played a major role (that was recently explored by Manuel Moreno Alonso in his book La forja del liberalismo en España).

In any case, liberalism is today almost synonymous with our political civilization, as opposed to others in the world. So much so, that almost no political force in our countries can survive today on a totally anti-liberal platform: at least, they have to pay lip service to some of our basic principles, even when their policies openly contradict them.

Hence, every definition of liberalism can only be what is called in social sciences an ideal type, i.e. an abstract intellectual construction, to which we can compare what exists in history and in societies, in order to be able to appreciate what is most liberal, what is least liberal, and, of course, what is most illiberal or anti-liberal.

We should therefore try to propose a definition. And this is my proposal: liberalism is a theory of the ends and  a theory of the means: maximising individual freedom and self-determination, mainly through the instrument of the legal limitation of powers.

If we accept this definition, Liberalism is a perpetual work in progress.

First because, from the very beginning, it was connected with an ever more comprehensive and ever more consistent fight against authoritarian traditions and beliefs, and because of the natural inclination of every political, traditional, bureaucratic, social and economic power to confront and overrun its imposed limits.

Second, and as a consequence of that, because liberalism was never restricted to the limitation of political power: liberalism always aimed at imposing limits also on the ever possible tyranny of a democratic majority; on the abuse of economic power, through anti-trust legislation protecting free market and competition, and through a legal protection of workers from abuse, and defending consumers from fraud and adulteration; on the abuse of power even inside communities and families, advocating equal rights for women (since Locke’s time, and his reduction of marriage basically to its merely legal framework) and protecting children from abuse and indoctrination.

3) Not One Single Economic Liberalism

Third, finally, because the economic means necessary to fulfil the goal of enhancing individual self-determination do change with the different challenges we have to face.

The brand of liberalism that was mostly recognized as such, after the end of World War II and until a couple of decades ago, the one that largely influenced most of the political spectrum in most Western democracies throughout the Cold War, not only required the guarantee and the implementation of the individual liberties that were trampled by communist and other totalitarian regimes, but also included a push towards an ever greater inclusion and empowerment of each individual in the actual exercise of his/her citizenship and liberal rights. That had originally been a typically liberal idea, born in the Victorian age in the same country, England, that had given birth to liberalism two centuries before. The idea was that public powers should actually put individuals in the condition of making real use of their liberal liberties. The Welfare state itself was first conceived and designed by liberals as Keynes and Beveridge, who were card-carrying members of the British Liberal Party, not by socialists or social democrats. And for years, not only communists, but also a lot of mainstream socialists, had been accusing the wicked liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, for having rescued capitalism from its certain downfall, thus preventing the rise of a happy global socialist society.

It is a fact that almost all national political classes and state bureaucracies had long been squandering since, to their own advantage, much of the benefits they were supposed to make available to a majority of citizens.

A healthy liberal mistrust towards ever possible abuses committed by the holders of political power, and a less naive and more sober notion of democracy, should have suggested that “public” is by no means equivalent per se to “caring for public interest”. Moreover, the demographical and technological transformations of the last three decades nowadays impose deep reforms of the welfare systems in order to assure their financial sustainability. But, as it frequently happens in politics – and in social sciences – an overreaction took place since the late Seventies on both sides of the Atlantic, in the end substituting the liberal consensus that had been shared in most Western countries by the moderate left and the moderate right alike while we were containing and opposing Soviet communism, with what was – usually derogatively – called Washington consensus in the Nineties, that was more inclined to accept growing inequalities, and, especially, also decreasing equality in opportunities.

In some countries, namely in France, and elsewhere to a smaller extent, that essentially merely economic and very often caricaturized doctrine became synonymous with liberalism, to the point that the previous meaning – liberalism as synonymous for political freedom and freedom of conscience in the first place – has long been labelled as vieilli (outdated) by French dictionaries: so that even the Chilean Pinochet regime of the Seventies and Eighties can often be defined as libéral in the present French political debate.

Anyway, this new basically economic theory, not the comprehensive liberal political views that embodied the Western opposition to communism from the Forties more or less to the late Seventies, was the ideology upon which the globalised world was restructured after the fall of communism.

At the beginning it was a success, because of the enormous growth caused by the more open societies in general and by the opening of totally new markets; and perhaps most of all by the simultaneous huge technological revolution; and, later, due to the practice of easy indebtedness. The subsequent global economic crisis still ongoing, and the consequent discredit that the most radical interpretations of the so called Washington consensus are undergoing, should not be allowed to drag liberalism into disrepute together with them.

A liberal society cannot survive without a free market economy, not only because private enterprise is an expression of individual freedom, and because the economic development, that it alone can make possible, is necessary in order to achieve a satisfactory degree of human development, but also because a liberal society must be polyarchic: political power, economic power and power over the media power should be as much separate as possible. Strong counter-powers to the political power are vital for a liberal society. And free trade is also the best guarantee for peace in a global world: thanks to globalisation, perhaps for the first time in history, the rise of a new global superpower like China is not leading to a war among the major powers, that today would be the global nuclear war that had been threatening all of us for forty years.

It is however not only a long overdue tribute to historical accuracy, but also a statement of fact, that different views on the extent of legitimate and suitable state intervention, and different ideas on the desirable level of equality of opportunities, have always been present in the history of contemporary liberalism. We should remember this while trying to find the way out of the present global crisis.

Rather than focusing on the traditional (and in my humble opinion largely arguable) distinction between the so-called “classical” and “social” brands of liberalism, I would express my personal preference for a third possible variety of liberalism, that has been recently identified and categorised as a distinct one in a very interesting lecture given by our ELF friend Patrick van Schie, Bildungsliberalismus (German translation for the original Dutch ontplooiingsliberalisme, said to be difficult to translate into English or other languages): a current originating from the thought of Wilhelm von Humboldt and John Stuart Mill, for which the main role of public institutions is that of empowering individuals to display all their personal potential, especially in the field of education, and of enabling them to free themselves from the straight-jacket of community and group coercion. One must always remember, anyway, that also these distinctions among different varieties of liberalism are ideal types, too: they are to be taken as the theoretical frameworks for elaborating actual policies. None of these ideal types definitions – and Bildungsliberalismus perhaps even more than the other two – is sufficient per se to identify consequent policies or political programs; they are rather, and quite obviously, subject to different possible interpretations.

4) The Communitarian Challange

Both more Keynesians and more free-trader liberals or, if you wish, classical liberals, “social” liberals, and Bildungsliberalen alike should find a common ground on the overriding importance they all attach to the freedom and free development of the personality of each single individual: personal freedom, freedom of speech, the right to a due process of law, protection from discrimination on the ground of ascribed identities (ethnicity, physical characters, age, disability, sex, gender, sexual orientation) or on the ground of political, cultural and religious choices; and equal social dignity.

Yes, the rule of law, human rights, liberal constitutional democracy are nowadays the joint heritage of all the democratic political families in Europe. But all these values and principles are the outcome of liberal initiative, liberal imprinting, liberal intellectual leadership in the past. We should be their most demanding interpreters today.

The ever impending risk of the “tyranny of the majority” is nowadays most notably visible in the debate concerning the rising and aggressive claims of religious fundamentalists (both Islamic and Christian), the new bioethical issues, prohibitionist policies and the controversies over multiculturalism.

On all these issues we should stick to the rule that basic constitutional principles – individual liberties, equal rights and dignity, the rule of law, democracy – are the only acceptable binding civic bonds of an open society despite the claims of populists and religious fundamentalists. This is what I proposed to call the “patriotism of the Liberal Grundnorm”, with an explicit reference to Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “constitutional patriotism” and to Hans Kelsen’s idea of Grundnorm: i.e. the only possible sort of inclusive patriotism, for Europe and for each of its traditional nations alike.

This implies that the state, or public powers, can never be entitled to forcefully protect adult and sane individuals from themselves (remember Locke: «every man has a property in his own person»); that individuals should always be treated as individuals, not as individual members of typified groups; that cultural diversity can never justify a compression of individuals’ rights within minority communities, or minority families, or those of minorities within minorities; that faith, ideas and practices of their elders should never be forcefully imposed on those minors that are «capable of forming their own views» (as stated by the New York 1989 Convention on the Rights of Children).

No better institutional framework could be provided, in order to protect these individual liberties and rights, than that provided by our great and successful liberal tradition of religious neutrality and separation – as large as practically feasible – between religion and political power.

This achievement was the converging result of the struggles both of deists, free-thinkers, libertines and immanentist or atheist philosophers, and that of religious minorities. In the new multireligious situation, when many claim that “interreligious (i.e. inter-communitarian) dialogue” is the key to any peaceful coexistence, we should never forget that the fight for religious freedom and freedom of conscience was from the start a fight against the religious supremacy of the established churches  (at that time in the form of compulsory uniformity and intolerance), and only in the end a fight against the scourge of state atheism in communist counties or against Islamic fundamentalism. The «wall of separation between church and state» (Thomas Jefferson, 1802) is even today the most secure and effective tool to protect the freedom of conscience of each single individual and peaceful coexistence in our inherently and irreversibly plural societies.

On the contrary, today many religious leaders demand a “public recognition” on the part of our states and of the EU itself. That is almost wherever in Europe the demand of Muslim leaders. And other established religions, first of all the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, are thus trying to seize the opportunity to ask for a renewed “public role” of all religions, that would inevitably confine non-believers and maverick believers (today’s dissenters, as they were called in 17th century England) in the position of second class citizens, like the Dhimmis in the Ottoman Empire; and trying to impose on all of us, by law, personal behaviours only consistent with a faith many of us do not share, and even many more do not share in its official interpretation, as it is the case of tens of millions of Catholics in Europe.

An even more open threat to open societies comes from those populist politicians who want no “religious dialogue” at all, but use the autochthonous religion, or whatever other item they find in their country’s real or invented “tradition”, as tools to exclude people of other religion, and the autochthonous individualists alike, from their regressive dream of a society they would like to make more cohesive and intolerant through a renewed authoritarian imposition of some kind of anthropological uniformity. Christianity is for them nothing more than an ideological weapon to be brandished against minorities, and/or against immigrants.

Claims for national identities, or for a European identity, based upon a single religion, or indeed on one single culture or tradition, are never candid, innocent claims: what is claimed is an exegetic principle, a criterion to be implemented in the interpretation of the entire system of law, creating first and second class citizens. The biggest challenge of the present time is the paradoxical erosion of the most precious historical values typical of our common civic identity, largely part of a cultural acquis communautaire, by populist politicians, who pose as the keepers of our “real” identity and tradition, and would like to cage all of us into closed homogeneous and mutually hostile communitarian enclosures, the smaller and the more controlled the better.

5) Europe, a Liberal Voice in the Global World

I mentioned that modern liberalism was not built upon the vacuum, but upon some cultural depositories that were the heritage of previous periods of our history. In his celebrated Funeral Oration, Pericles praised «The freedom we enjoy in our government – in Athens, he meant – extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes...» And his unlucky successor Nicias mentioned «the unfettered discretion allowed [in Athens] to all to live as they pleased». Nicias’s Athens was defeated by the tyrants of Syracuse. It took more than 2000 years for individual freedom to reappear, after that brief ancient epiphany, in the Netherlands, in England, in America, in France, now supported by a new robust individualist anthropology and a much more developed system of law; but it took three more centuries to re-take roots, after the two attempted suicides of Europe in the 20th century, in our countries, and in our European Union.

The liberals’ task is not only to defend, but to enhance and to expand those achievements. And to defend, strengthen and democratise and legitimise that European Union that is for us, in the global world, the only possible tool allowing us to have a say in a world where all our old individual nation states no longer have a voice strong enough to be remarked and taken into account, and strong enough to effectively stand for liberal principles, together with the  like-minded voices in today’s international community.

Remember: like-minded voices are really not numberless in today’s global world.

Southern European School of Liberalism, Santiago, Galicia, September 27th 2013


(Audio file of the Parenzo/Poreč event here)

(Video of the Santiago event here Santiago video)


Creative Commons License
Files released on this site by Giulio Ercolessi are licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Italy License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at