The Death of Liberalism Has Been Proclaimed Before

The current wave of populism calls to mind the mood of the early 20th century when liberal values in England saw a “strange death.”

Bank of England during general strike, London, 1926 © Everett Historical / Shutterstock

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent designation of liberal values as “obsolete” may sound familiar. This is not the first time the death of liberalism has been announced. As George Dangerfield’s classic study put it, the early years of the 20th century saw the “strange death” of liberal values in England, and this reflected a pattern of disillusion across Europe.

Unsurprisingly, the current wave of populism calls to mind the mood of those years and its consequences. The First World War intensified a sense of historical crisis, a feeling that modernity marked a point of division and loss, heralding the birth of fascist ideology as some insisted that authoritarian assertions, fueled by popular passion, were desirable solutions for an enervated West. Expanding electorates, newly but imperfectly literate and vocal, led some observers to denigrate the principles of freedom reified for example in the British liberal tradition as it developed from its Whig roots toward a modern faith in history as moving, enmeshed with human reason, to the best possible outcome.

Loosely borrowing from Darwinian and German idealist philosophy, early 20th-century liberals evinced a sense of inexorable progress, expressed in various forms: sometimes gradual, sometimes revolutionary, some prioritizing the “negative” freedom of capitalism’s “invisible hand,” others calling for state guidance in the “New Liberal” tradition.

An alternative narrative of Europe, traceable to continental romanticism, was more complicated, asserting the uniqueness of cultural formations, looking to the growth of distinctive national character from its seed through to fruition. This tradition remained optimistic, essentially, in seeing God at work in the destinies of peoples, but in seeing these forces as specific to locality and circumstance, ruling out abstract generalization about their progress, but always looking to their roots, to the specifics of their being in nuce and their becoming over time.

This was the root of a nationalist historiography. From Johann Gottfried Herder through to the Prussian School of history this line of thought was at work in forming a sense of the incommensurability of national character and destiny to any general pattern. Such attempts to relocate value in local conditions, circumstances and peoples were radicalized in early 20th century attacks on liberal abstraction. Rather than atomized units of humanity playing a role in a vast system, the new spirit dealt with persons, unique and special.

Chorus of Populisms

In terms of politics, the focus on the local would come out in what seems familiar to us now as a rejection of globalized marketplace, of the movement of peoples and a celebration of rootedness, of specificity, of community. This could result in a politics of earth and blood, no doubt. One countervailing influence lay in the old schism across Europe between temporal and spiritual power — a battle the outcome of which has never been clear.

Forms of subsidiarity — the distribution of power back to individuals — were reimagined in the early 20th century as a response to this crisis of liberalism; to reassure communities and families that their special circumstances would be recognized, celebrated and granted an autonomy unavailable under the liberal state. And yet paradoxically, in many cases, this conceptual process by steps revised the goal of pluralism, proffering a recognition of local, ethnic feeling in emotive, irrational form while disguising what was an unprecedented centralization of such power, ultimately demanding total loyalty and subordination of persons and families to state control.

Against this we might note the resistance put up against an excess temporal power by those keeping in mind the older tradition of European Christendom, and indeed “totalitarianism” was first defined and criticized by Christian commentators.

Just as a chorus of populisms swells again across Europe and the United States, the negligent, abstracting habits of liberal progressivism have been identified and attacked, conceded and regretted by commentators across the political spectrum. The same impulse that generated radical new proposals for power distribution as a replacement for both classic and statist liberalism is at work again in forms of post-liberalism on the left as much as the right.

The question remains whether critics of liberalism can find the delicate balance that permits a genuine reorientation of government, an invigorating new pluralism, without falling for the emotive, irrational romance of national and ethnic identity and thus the confidence trick that renders the “left behind” merely pawns moved by insidious top-down forces, gradually reinstalled by a new populist elite.

One notable precedent in the earlier crisis of liberalism of the early century was the British school of guild socialism, identified with the work of George Douglas Howard Cole, represented an “undeveloped history,” as Cole put it. The idea was first developed in the radical periodical, New Age, a testing ground for heterodoxies of the left — and to some extent of the right — edited between 1907 and 1922 by Alfred Richard Orage. The journal was also the venue for many modernist writers establishing the theoretical grounds of that movement in the arts. Perhaps, as Roger Griffin has suggested, we should taxonomize such simultaneous ideological and artistic ventures as forms of “political” and “cultural” modernism.

Marriage of Old and New

The guild idea, recurring in British historiography as a distinctive feature of the often-romanticized Middle Ages, was promoted from the 1860s, notably by John Ruskin. In essence, it eulogized and sought a return to the small guild structures of the Middle Ages, whereby networks of self-regulating producers — guilds based around a variety of crafts, arts and trades — would achieve ownership over their own labor. Ruskin advocated such a system, notably in his 1860 work “Unto This Last” and in “Fors Clavigera,” his letters to workmen and laborers written between 1871 and 1884.

In 1871 he established the Guild of St. George to support work in crafts. His advocacy and similar arguments proposed by William Morris and Edward Carpenter were key sources when the guild idea attained a new lease of life in the early 20th century through the concerted efforts of a group of heterodox socialist thinkers based in Leeds and later London.

Arthur Penty’s 1906 “Restoration of the Gild System” is a key text. Penty, an architect, remembered a decisive moment when he learned that the competition to choose a building design for the new London School of Economics had been evaluated purely on the calculation of maximum classroom space. This reminder of the utilitarian equations — the so-called statistical method — favored by the British intellectual left (led by Sydney and Beatrice Webb) over aesthetic or spiritual values, repelled him from its practices.

He wrote his short 1906 book — its title spelt “gild” significantly to distinguish his idea from other versions — after much discussion with his Leeds friend Orage, a leader of the Leeds Art Club, a group of radical intellectuals that exemplifies, as Tom Steele has put it, the provincial Northern avant-garde. The two men had by this time moved to London where they were attempting to instill their ideas in the Fabian Society network in the capital. Penty and Orage differed greatly in their worldviews. Penty’s uncompromising pursuit of a medieval guild idea generated a resolute hostility to modern industry; he sought a militant rejection of mass production and a reversion to pre-industrial arts and crafts.

Orage was open to an adaptation of the guild idea to technological realities, and this led him toward speculations on new forms of industrial guilds — a marriage of old and new that led to intriguing proximities to Sorelian syndicalism as well as the Janus-faced experiments of the London avant-garde.

The other incompatibility between the two men lay in Orage’s spiritual thinking. His guild idea was linked intrinsically to spiritualist or occult tendencies, which linked the investment of spirit in labor to the fruition of the individual on a spiritual plane, an idea he expanded on in lectures to the Theosophical Society in these years, resulting in his 1907 book “Consciousness, Animal, Human and Superman,” written while he and Penty shared a flat for a year in Hammersmith. While Orage’s investment in Penty’s economic mission is clear from his article for Past and Present in 1907, championing a return to the guild idea, his book and regular pieces for The Theosophical Review would suggest that these flatmates made a somewhat odd couple: As regards religion, Penty’s medievalism inclined him toward an integration of Catholicism as the unifying force to bring together the small networks of producers.

A third figure in this network was Samuel George Hobson, an Irish-born socialist who imbibed similar Ruskinian ideas to Orage and Penty, and added insights of his own deriving from managerial experience in various business enterprises. He too felt himself at odds with his colleagues’ ideas, immediately with Penty’s refutation of industry and, over time, with Orage’s monetary theories. Yet as the main author of a series of influential articles on guild economics that appeared in New Age from 1912, he was a decisive contributor to the development of the idea. Later he would espouse what he called a “Functional Socialism” that combined aspects of Orage’s thinking with those of the Spanish intellectual Ramiro de Maeztu, whose Catholicism colored his belief in a society shaped by conservative ethical principle.

Marc Stears has usefully dissected this field of guild socialisms to show how a genus of ideas can host numerous species, with potential developments in multiple directions. What one might identify as the distinguishing feature is the attitude to temporality: These writers shared a sense of modernity as having created a division, a break between a unified older society and a new world in which both the economic and the internal life of man was divided from itself. This prefigures the notable medievalist streak that runs through British modernism in work by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats, among many others.

Yet fractures run through the movement separating proximate writers’ work in myriad small ways. Penty’s idea is clearly emphatic in its description of a fall, but also envisions a “restoration.” Orage wrote of the significance of man’s fallen condition, but also posited the possibility of redemption. Cole’s version, by maintaining a sense of individual worth, indicates a sense of promise in history that was compatible with mainstream Labour and liberal thought. What is noticeable about the guild idea is that it sees history as having suffered a fundamental moment of division in the rise of modernity, and proposes a return to a prelapsarian state.

Factionalization of the Guild Idea

Over time, the guild movement broke into factions. Cole’s circle distanced itself from the journal, preferring to work under the aegis of the Fabian Research Department. The National Guilds League, founded by Cole in 1915, struggled to gain traction within a Labour Party concerned primarily with parliamentary representation. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a split within the National Guilds League between those who admired and feared Bolshevik theories and methods. Members of both factions left, some, like Reckett, to refine a Christian version of the guild idea, others to join the new Communist Party of Great Britain.

Stripped of much of its membership, the league was wound up in 1923. However, some current political writers refer back to the guild idea and seek to resurrect an Edwardian ideology they see as prematurely discarded and denied its true fruition in practice.

The legacy of Orage’s closer circle can be traced in more detail. Some members of the guild socialist circle were attracted to Italian fascism, undoubtedly. The Italian guild socialist Odon Por and the American emigré Ezra Pound were two prominent cases. These former New Age contributors worked together to transfer elements of the idea into an Italian fascist context. The Spanish journalist Ramiro de Maeztu considered himself to be a guild socialist and was proud of his place in the history of that movement. Others, however, saw his position as fascist; indeed, he was a founding member of the nationalist group Acción Española and was shot dead by Republicans in the lead up to the Spanish Civil War.

Many of Maeztu’s friends in Britain continued to identify themselves with the guild tradition, distancing themselves from fascism, although their thinking was sometimes perceived as tinted with authoritarianism. These writers included Reckitt, Orage’s biographer Philip Mairet and the Anglican clergyman Vigo Demant — central figures in the intellectual networks known as the Christendom Group founded 1921, and the Chandos Group, named after an informal gathering at the Chandos restaurant in St. Martin’s Lane, around 1931.

Eliot met Reckitt at the 1933 Anglo-Catholic Summer School held at Keble College, Oxford, and gave Reckitt’s “Christian Sociology for Today” a favorable review in The Criterion in July 1934. Eliot praised Demant’s works in his Criterion commentaries of January 1932 and January 1934 and acknowledges a debt to his work in “The Idea of a Christian Society.”

These interwar groups explored the possibility of a Christian politics. Reckitt and Demant had become acquainted with Orage and other guild socialists as contributors to the New Age. They wrote for Orage again when he returned to London in 1934 as editor of the New English Weekly. Both had a notable link to a brand of Anglican thinking that preceded the New Age debate. As Matthew Grimley has shown, the Edwardian network of Christian pluralists laid the foundations for interwar discussions regarding the guild idea. Influenced by John Neville Figgis, Reckitt and Demant were involved with the Christian Social League prior to their contact with Orage, Hobson and Cole at the New Age.

Figgis was a key figure in Christian social thinking who, influenced by Lord Acton (his tutor at Cambridge) and the German thinker Otto von Gierke, advanced a kind of pluralism, emphasizing the role of faith communities in balancing the power of the state. Attentive to modern thought, notably the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his work reacted against weak forms of liberal theology. Intellectually advanced, he was at the same time drawn to a traditional austerity, leading him to join the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, an Anglican monastic order and seminary that remains influential to this day. Reckitt and Demant both benefitted from long conversations with Figgis toward the end of his life, as did the left-leaning Church historian Alec Vidler.

Political Religion

Figgis, like contemporaries across Europe, rejected the liberal “boneless Christ” of the 19th century. An accomplished preacher who was invited to prominent churches in London between the wars, he argued that the idea of historical “progress with a capital P” has been “torpedoed by the man who sunk the Lusitania,” strangely foreshadowing his later experience as a passenger on a ship sunk by U-boats, an incident that shortened his life. This mood of dissatisfaction with a complacent progressivism that blurs history and theology echoes themes in the cultural modernism of T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot, who knew and shared ideas with guild socialist intellectuals.

Tangentially, Figgis’s ideas appear also to echo the turning away from liberal theology apparent in the work of Karl Barth, whose 1919 commentary “The Epistle to the Romans,” in its withdrawal from the liberal German tradition of Schleiermacher, had a profound impact. As the theologian Karl Adams put it in another resonant metaphor, “the bomb that fell on the playground of the theologians.” The martial metaphors interestingly recall the impact of cultural modernism at the same moment: the “artquake” of post-impressionism of 1910, and imaginings of the new art as a revolution or moment of anarchy.

For Figgis, the interwoven fabrics of communities, families, guilds and faiths provide a form of protection against a centralizing hubris and the worst forms of political religion. His case for a form of subsidiarity that distributed power among multiple communities, thus thwarting the accumulation of state authority on one side and the ill effects of liberal atomism on the other is powerfully resonant today. This English writer echoes the attack on “totalitarianism” — a word coined by Catholic critics of the fascist, Nazi and Soviet regimes of the interwar period. An antagonism between Jacques Maritain and Carl Schmitt is representative of this debate, Maritain leading the charge against totalitarianism having distanced himself from Action française’s similar tendency to centralized authority.

Figgis can be seen as part of this collision of ideas across Europe. This brief sketch merely introduces some past ideas that stood in reaction against totalitarianism, with a view to how current attacks on liberalism might be addressed through the renewal of lost, alternative political systems, even those short-lived experiments that fell foul to the perils of emotive nationalism in an earlier age. One must seek the mo

mentary element, the fragile dream of reinvesting in persons within a community, neither negligently abstract nor poisonously emotive in clannish union. The guild idea, however brief its earlier expression, might contain useful aspects in its glimpsed, prelapsarian state, as it was before some catalyst turned it to an uglier alloy.

Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Academic Adviser at Oxford Programme of Undergraduate Studies. See his profile here.

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