“…liberalism has, to an unusual degree, been defined by what it wasn’t”

…liberalism has, to an unusual degree, been defined by what it wasn’t. For French liberals in the early nineteenth century, it was a defense against the excesses of Jacobins and ultra-monarchists. For the free-trading Manchester Liberals of the mid-nineteenth century, it was anticolonial. Liberals in Germany, on the other hand, were allied with both nationalists and imperialists. In the twentieth century, liberalism became a banner under which to march against Communism and Fascism. Recent scholars have argued that it wasn’t until liberalism became the default “other” of totalitarian ideologies that inner coherence and intellectual lineage were retrospectively found for it. Locke, a devout Christian, was not regarded as a philosopher of liberalism until the early twentieth century. Nor was the word “liberal” part of U.S. political discourse before that time. When Lionel Trilling claimed, in 1950, that liberalism in America was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the term was becoming a catchall signifier of moral prestige, variously synonymous with “democracy,” “capitalism,” and even simply “the West.” Since 9/11, it has seemed more than ever to define the West against such illiberal enemies as Islamofascism and Chinese authoritarianism.

Pankaj Mishra, “The Influencer”, The New Yorker (11 November 2019), 77.