Writing about Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism the other day prompted me to think more about the version of liberalism he describes. One of the things I appreciated in his book was the way he placed liberalism, and particularly British liberalism, in a historical context. This isn’t surprising as he was a historian rather than a philosopher or political scientist, but it does feel sometimes that people present liberalism as something that only emerged in the nineteenth century, ignoring the important of Locke and the debates of the seventeenth century in its emergence. There are important liberal thinkers before and after John Stuart Mill, and Russell’s historical account reflects that.
It’s also interesting to note how Russell’s account downplays the role of economics in liberalism. Again, this contrasts with the current vogue for claiming the existence of ‘classical liberalism’ based around Millian ideas of liberty and laissez-faire economics. Russell’s vision of liberalism is one that has the control of power and the promotion of the individual at its heart, with economics a tool to be used to achieve those ends, not an end in itself. For me, that’s a much more interesting vision of liberalism than one which places economics at the heart of everything and embraces the fetishisation of work (especially ‘hard work’) that’s such a feature of modern political discourse.
Russell’s exploration of liberalism takes works through a few distinct areas:
Rather than writing another post that tries to cover all of those issues in one, what I’m planning is to do a series of posts over the next week or two that looks at each of these in turn. The idea will be to use Russell’s thoughts on the subject as a springboard for some more thoughts of my own, to look at where this kind of vision of liberalism can take us. Hopefully, they’ll be interesting enough to spark off a bit of debate in the comments and elsewhere, and even if they don’t, it’ll be an interesting process for me to think and write about those ideas.