Liberalism is a most important by-product of Rationalism, and its origins and ideology must be clearly shown.
The “Enlightenment” period of Western history which set in after the Counter-Reformation laid more and more stress on intellect, reason and logic as it developed. By the middle of the 18th century this tendency produced Rationalism. Rationalism regarded all spiritual values as its objects and proceeded to revalue them from the standpoint of “reason.” Inorganic logic is the faculty men have always used for solving problems of mathematics, engineering, transportation, physics and in other non-valuing situations. Its insistence on identity and rejection of contradiction are practicable in material activity. They afford intellectual satisfaction also in matters of purely abstract thought, like mathematics and logic, but if pursued far enough they turn into mere techniques, simple assumptions whose only justification is empirical. The end of Rationalism is Pragmatism, the suicide of Reason.
This adaptation of reason to material problems causes all problems whatever to become mechanical when surveyed in "the light of reason,” without any mystical admixture of thought or tendency whatever. Descartes reasoned the animals into automata, and a generation or so later, man himself was rationalized into an automaton — or equally, an animal. Organisms became problems in chemistry and physics, and superpersonal organism simply no longer existed, for they are not amenable to reason, not being visible or measurable. Newton provided the universe of stars with a non-spiritual self-regulating force; the next century removed the spirit from man, his history and his affairs.
Reason detests the inexplicable, the mysterious, the half-light. In a practical problem in machinery or ship-building one must feel that all the factors are under his knowledge and control. There must be nothing unpredictable or out of control. Rationalism, which is the feeling that everything is subject to and completely explicable by Reason, consequently rejects everything not visible and calculable. If a thing actually cannot be calculated, Reason merely says that the factors are so numerous and complicated that in a purely practical way they render the calculation unfeasible, but do not make it theoretically impossible. Thus Reason also has its Will-to-Power: whatever does not submit is pronounced recalcitrant, or is simply denied existence.
When it turned its gaze to History, Rationalism saw the whole tendency as one toward Reason. Man was “emerging” during all those millennia, he was “progressing” from barbarism and fanaticism to enlightenment, from “superstition” to “science,” from violence to “reason,” from dogma to criticism, from darkness to light. No more invisible things, no more spirit, no more soul, no more God, no more Church and State. The two poles of thought are “the individual” and “humanity.” Anything separating them is “irrational.”
This branding of things as irrational is in fact correct. Rationalism must mechanize everything, and whatever cannot be mechanized is of necessity irrational. Thus the entirety of History becomes irrational: its chronicles, its processes, its secret force, Destiny. Rationalism itself, as a by-product of a certain stage in the development of a High Culture, is also irrational. Why Rationalism follows one spiritual phase, why it exercises its brief sway, why it vanishes once more into religion — these questions are historical, thus irrational.
Liberalism is Rationalism in politics. It rejects the State as an organism, and can only see it as the result of a contract between individuals. The purpose of Life has nothing to do with States, for they have no independent existence. Thus the “happiness” of “the individual” becomes the purpose of Life. Bentham made this as coarse as it could be made in collectivizing it into “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” If herding-animals could talk, they would use this slogan against the wolves. To most humans, who are the mere material of History, and not actors in it, “happiness” means economic wellbeing. Reason is quantitative, not qualitative, and thus makes the average man into “Man.” “Man” is a thing of food, clothing, shelter, social and family life, and leisure. Politics sometimes demands sacrifice of life for invisible things. This is against “happiness,” and must not be. Economics, however, is not against “happiness,” but is almost co-extensive with it. Religion and Church wish to interpret the whole of Life on the basis of invisible things, and so militate against “happiness.” Social ethics, on the other hand, secure economic order, thus promote “happiness. “
Here Liberalism found its two poles of thought: economics and ethics. They correspond to individual and humanity. The ethics of course is purely social, materialistic; if older ethics is retained, its former metaphysical foundation is forgotten, and it is promulgated as a social, and not a religious, imperative. Ethics is necessary to maintain the order necessary as a framework for economic activity. Within that framework, however, “the individual” must be “free.” This is the great cry of Liberalism, “freedom.” Man is only himself, and is not tied to anything except by choice. Thus “society” is the “free” association of men and groups. The State, however, is un-freedom, compulsion, violence. The Church is spiritual un-freedom.
All things in the political domain were transvalued by Liberalism. War was transformed into either competition, seen from the economic pole, or ideological difference, seen from the ethical pole. Instead of the mystical rhythmical alternation of war and peace, it sees only the perpetual concurrence of competition or ideological contrast, which in no case becomes hostile or bloody. The State becomes society or humanity on the ethical side, a production and trade system on the economic side. The will to accomplish a political aim is transformed into the making of a program of “social ideals” on the ethical side, of calculation on the economic side. Power becomes propaganda, ethically speaking, and regulation, economically speaking.
The purest expression of the doctrine of Liberalism was probably that of Benjamin Constant. In 1814 he set forth his views on the “progress” of “man.” He looked upon the 18th century Enlightenment with its intellectualistic-humanitarian cast as merely preliminary to the true liberation, that of the 19th century. Economics, industrialism, and technics represented the means of “freedom.” Rationalism was the natural ally of this trend. Feudalism, Reaction, War, Violence, State, Politics, Authority — all were overcome by the new idea, supplanted by Reason, Economics, Freedom, Progress and Parliamentarism.
War, being violent and brutal, was unreasonable, and is replaced by Trade, which is intelligent and civilized. War is condemned from every standpoint: economically it is a loss even to the victor. The new war technics — artillery — made personal heroism senseless, and thus the charm and glory of war departed with its economic usefulness. In earlier times, war-peoples had subjugated trading-peoples, but no longer. Now trading-peoples step out as the masters of the earth.
A moment’s reflection shows that Liberalism is entirely negative. It is not a formative force, but always and only a disintegrating force. It wishes to depose the twin authorities of Church and State, substituting for them economic freedom and social ethics. It happens that organic realities do not permit of more than the two alternatives: the organism can be true to itself, or it becomes sick and distorted, a prey for other organisms. Thus the natural polarity of leaders and led cannot be abolished without annihilating the organism. Liberalism was never entirely successful in its fight against the State, despite the fact that it engaged in political activity throughout the 19th century in alliance with every other type of State-disintegrating force. Thus there were National-Liberals, Social-Liberals, Free-Conservatives, Liberal-Catholics. They allied themselves with democracy, which is not Liberal, but irresistibly authoritarian in success. They sympathized with Anarchists when the forces of Authority sought to defend themselves against them. In the 20th century, Liberalism joined Bolshevism in Spain, and European and American Liberals sympathized with Russian Bolsheviks.
Liberalism can only be defined negatively. It is a mere critique, not a living idea. Its great word “freedom” is a negative it means in fact, freedom from authority, i.e., disintegration of the organism. In its last stages it produces social atomism, in which not only the authority of the State is combated, but even the authority of society and the family. Divorce takes equal rank with marriage, children with parents. This constant thinking in negatives caused political activists like Marx, Lorenz v. Stein and Ferdinand Lasalle to despair of it as a political vehicle. Its attitudes were always contradictory, it sought always a compromise. It sought always to “balance” democracy against monarchy, managers against hand-workers, State against Society, legislative against judicial. In a crisis, Liberalism as such was not to be found. Liberals found their way on to one or the other side of a revolutionary struggle, depending on the consistency of their Liberalism, and its degree of hostility to authority.
Thus Liberalism in action was just as political as any State ever was. It obeyed organic necessity by its political alliances with non-Liberal groups and ideas. Despite its theory of individualism, which of course would preclude the possibility that one man or group could call upon another man or group for the sacrifice or risk of life, it supported “unfree” ideas like Democracy, Socialism, Bolshevism, Anarchism, all of which demand life-sacrifice.