What are progressive liberals

The progressive center

That the collective had to step back behind the individual was the revolutionary creed of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. What is the originally liberal vision for our time? There is currently a lot of public discussion about liberalism, both from an ideological point of view and from a party-political point of view.

This has come under increasing criticism in recent months, not least as a result of the global upheavals on the financial markets and the resulting economic crisis. Among other things, the representatives of liberalism are accused of having made the current problems structurally possible through regulatory negligence (although it is rarely mentioned that it was the red-green federal government that pushed ahead with the softening of the euro stability pact in 2005 and laid the legal basis for Approval of highly speculative hedge funds in Germany). In addition, liberalism does not offer the necessary tools to successfully cope with the crisis or to draw lessons for the future from it. Furthermore, the current liberalism debate is about the direction in which a new basic program of the FDP, which in 2012 is to follow the "Wiesbaden resolutions" of 1997, could point.

Before formulating fundamental liberal answers to the political and social challenges of the 21st century, however, it is worth taking a look at the past. As far as the program is concerned, an interesting historical constant can be observed: Liberalism was politically successful whenever the collective stepped back behind the individual. This significantly differentiated liberalism from the other two great ideologies of progress, from socialism and from nationalism. If this borderline was crossed, however, then basic liberal convictions were up for grabs. Liberalism changed its character. And for the liberal parties this was always associated with a loss of political power.

Take, say, the decades before the First World War, when most liberals adhered to an imperialist policy for which the nation rather than the individual represented the highest value. The commitment to the nation weakened the willingness to stand up for a liberal order of values, which in turn led to the fact that in the years before 1914 social democracy rose to become the strongest political force. Or let's take a look at the second half of the Weimar Republic: at that time, the liberal parties had allied themselves with the economy for better or for worse and then plunged into insignificance in the elections. In the election to the German National Assembly in 1919, the DDP and DVP together received more than 20 percent of the vote - by the Reichstag election in July 1932 they fell to a combined 2.2 percent. The political influence that remained with them was vanishingly small. Instead, there has been the rise of radical forces on the left and right of society; a development which, as is well known, culminated in January 1933 when the National Socialists came to power. This sealed the fate of the Liberals for the time being. The general ban on political parties issued by the Nazis a few weeks later was only the end of a process of decline, the origin of which goes back to the mid-twenties.

The individual and not the group

On the other hand, liberals always celebrated their greatest political successes when they dedicated themselves to the interests of the individual. For example, with the emancipation of women to full citizenship, which was propagated by liberals - the best known of them was the English philosopher and state theorist John Stuart Mill - since the middle of the 19th century, and thus long before representatives of other political currents on the topic assumed. At this point, however, it should not be overlooked that a comparable liberal commitment unfortunately largely failed to materialize in the course of the Jewish emancipation efforts that were taking place at the same time. Here, too, the liberals were too attached to the spirit of their time.

And even if the collapse of communism did not herald the much-cited "end of history" (Francis Fukuyama), the events of autumn 1989 are nevertheless a victory for liberalism: the fall of the Iron Curtain created the basis for a liberal social order in Eastern and Central Europe in line with Ralf Dahrendorf's or John Rawls' definition: equality before the law, equal political participation and adequate basic social opportunities. Again it was the individual, not the group, that was in the foreground.

For the question of the orientation of modern liberalism, it is also revealing which image of society was the basis of historical liberalism. How did its representatives feel about industrial capitalism, which also emerged in this country in the 19th century, and about industrial capitalist market society? Anyone who believes that the convincing yes to the free, unregulated market has always been a trademark of liberal politics is seriously mistaken. Early liberalism by no means saw itself as a prophet of the free market economy. Rather, his goal since the 19th century was the creation of a medium-sized society, a bourgeois society with a wide range of assets, which was to act as an effective counterpoint to the excessive accumulation of industry and capital. Liberals had neither seen industrial capitalism coming nor thought ahead and therefore first had to learn to “build” it into their vision of a society of equal citizens.

It becomes clear that liberalism included a plurality of social ideas at an early stage, at the center of which was always the demand for social and economic progress, but explicitly no industrial capitalist class policy. Continental European liberals had nothing to do with so-called laissez-faire capitalism based on the British model. They called for economic progress, but at the same time pleaded for its social containment. An industrial capitalist class society, as it had developed in England in the course of the industrial revolution from the middle of the 18th century, was at no time their goal. (Apart from that, the term “Manchester liberalism” has wrongly become a political slogan with a consistently negative connotation; its supporters such as David Hume or Adam Smith first pleaded for fair free trade and against the often military exploitation of the colonies.)

No social progress without education

Anyone who doubts this should take a look at the writings of well-known liberals of the 19th century such as Eugen Richter or Karl von Rotteck. Even with Friedrich Naumann - a few years later - quite clear positions can be found. One of Naumann's central political concerns was the solution of the social question, whereby he attached great importance to education as a prerequisite for social progress.

When, in the course of industrialization towards the middle of the 19th century, pauperism finally reached Germany, it was liberals who noticed the problem early on and were the first to try to provide municipal services in the now steadily growing cities. This included street cleaning and garbage collection, but also the construction of bathing establishments, museums and hospitals. They recognized earlier than others that individual provision would reach its limits in view of social and economic developments and the onset of population growth. Long before the introduction of unemployment, pension and accident insurance, they drew the conclusion that from now on the life opportunities of the individual had to be protected collectively. Especially in the cities, where the greatest need prevailed, the care of the poor and the establishment of social and school infrastructure for the lower social classes was for a long time a unique selling point of liberal politics. Here, too, the maxim was: The focus is on the individual, while the collective is only a means to an end. The liberal recipe for success in the century of liberalism - because that was the 19th century - did not rely on the weak "night watchman state", but on freedom to and within the state.

Against the conservatively frozen welfare state

Against this background, Ralf Dahrendorf and John Rawls also dealt with the question of what makes a society and a state liberal today and in the future. What they think in common is that they combine a historical approach with systematic considerations. Independently of each other, Dahrendorf and Rawls come to the conclusion that the basis of a fair social order is the already mentioned trinity of civil rights: equality before the law, equal opportunities for participation and adequate social security. However, while the first two are now part of the indispensable framework of any liberal society, Dahrendorf recognizes the third, social citizenship, a task for which our time must find new solutions. Dahrendorf considers the welfare state as an agency for the protection of social risks and for the distribution of social opportunities - in short: the social intervention state of the 20th century - to be bureaucratically encrusted and conservative frozen; overall, it hinders the individual more than it benefits him.

But the conclusion he draws from this is not a combination of minimum state and maximum market. Dahrendorf does not believe in the regulatory miracle of the market. Rather, he envisions transforming the existing welfare state into a “welfare state of the future”, in which the relationship between social and individual responsibility is given a new weighting (in this context, Dahrendorf is thinking, among other things, about a basic income for all). The civil society - the vision of historical liberalism since its inception - Dahrendorf translates as "life chances", generated by the "connection of citizenship rights and welfare opportunities" with the aim of enabling all people to "participate in the life of society as citizens" and " to enjoy the achievements of their time ”. Such a society is no longer primarily anchored within the boundaries of the historically inherited nation-state, but in a liberal world society, the great future project of our time. At the present time, the nation state is still indispensable, but it must be overcome in the medium term.

So Dahrendorf pleads for a reformed liberal welfare state that is able to take the explosive power of the “social question”. The social question of the present raises an essentially old problem for debate: What social requirements must be met in order to guarantee a form of citizenship that has “justice as fairness” (John Rawls) as its agenda?

Liberals are not revolutionaries and never have been - except in the fight against totalitarian systems. Your reform method is the many small steps. That's why Karl Popper once called liberalism an “evolutionary conviction”. And Ralf Dahrendorf said that the world is not changed by moving mountains, but by stones that are set in motion.

More than democracy plus market freedom

At the same time, the liberal creed that the collective must step back behind the individual was a unique feature of liberal politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, which in retrospect can definitely be described as revolutionary, both because of its progressiveness and because of its forward-looking radiance. And even if the liberal political parties only benefited to a limited extent from this (the 20th century, as Dahrendorf once called it, was a social democratic century), a liberalism whose program cannot be narrowed down to the concept of democracy plus market freedom continues to exist up-to-date - not least against the background of the experiences that the 20th century had with totalitarian regimes. In addition, with a bourgeois society beyond national thought patterns, one of the great visions of liberalism could become reality in the foreseeable future. Especially at a time when distribution problems can in all probability no longer be whitewashed by continuous growth as before, making them fair for political liberalism is both a challenge and an opportunity at the same time.


The author is a historian and works as a speaker for Christian Lindner (FDP) in the German Bundestag. The text reflects his personal opinion and is an updated version of an essay that appeared in issue 4/2010 of the “Berliner Republik”.