Jens Hacke

How to Write the History of Political Ideas and Ideologies: The Case of Liberalism in the 20th Century


To write the history of a political ideology seems like an old-fashioned exercise. First of all, the end of ideologies has been announced repeatedly, secondly the formative age of the classical political ideologies – liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism – is supposed to be the so-called “Sattelzeit” that has ended long ago. If we believe the “Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe”, the semantics of political ideologies have been spelled out at the close of the century. Apart from that the decline of totalitarian ideologies that shaped the “Age of 19th Extremes” signalled a return if not victory of western democracy. This optimistic notion has recently faded. Witnessing a new wave of autoratianism and Islamic fundamentalism, liberal-democratic values, their adaption to everchanging social conditions, and their historical impact need further research.
While the history of democracy has lately been established as a prolific field of study (J. Keane, P. Nolte, P. Rosanvallon), the history of liberalism since the 1918 remains to be largely inknown territory, especially regarding the European continental tradition (except for the studies of R. Bellamy and E. Fawcett). Which topics and thinkers matter for such a history? What are the theoretical shifts that shaped liberal thougt concerning the caesuras of 1918, 1939/45, 1968, 1989? What do we know about concepts of civil society and political participation from the 1920s to the 1950s, for example? What do we learn from the discourse about taming capitalism, about the intervention of the state up to discussions about third ways among liberals? How did liberals react to social change? How did they adopt new patterns of thought on individuality and personal liberty? In my paper I want to argue that an historian of ideas has to attribute to the fact that – however diverse – normative notions of liberalism are still in use and that thinking about democracy can not renounce, but needs to connect to traditional liberal values. A closer look at the course of liberal thinking also shows that the adaptability and the capability of learning provided for the enduring significance of liberalism, compared to the decline of the competing ideologies. Experiencing multiple crises, liberal thought partly lost its appeal of progressive optimism and went through sceptical and defensive moves, especially during the interwar period (1918-1939) as I would like to show, and simultaneously it took up republican traditions while it bid fare-well to laissez-faire.