“Liberal” comes from the Latin adjective liber meaning “free. “Liberalism” is a very broad, sweeping term which means different things to different people. Essentially, however, two forms of liberalism can be identified. The older, original version is called classical liberalism, while the newer, modern type is called reform liberalism.
The term “liberal” first came to be widely used during the late eighteenth century in western Europe. Classical liberals were strong believers in both economic and intellectual freedom. In their view of human nature, people were basically good creatures, capable of improving their lot in life through their own efforts. The idea of progress – the belief that social, economic and political conditions would get better with each generation – was central to classical liberalism. Classical liberals believed that government should not get involved in the economic and intellectual life of the community any more than necessary. They were not particularly concerned with economic or intellectual equality.
Reform liberalism has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the term “liberal” is used today, it is the type of liberalism which is meant. Reform liberalism differs from classical liberalism in its much stronger commitment to economic equality, which supporters believe can be brought about by limited government intervention in the economy. Nevertheless, reform liberalism maintains classical liberalism’s commitment to progress and intellectual freedom.
The change in liberal ideology was affected most profoundly by the writings of the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946). Keynes argued that governments should become involved in the economy by controlling the supply of money, even if this meant that governments would spend their way into debt. Such spending was seen as necessary to ensure that all citizens would have access to the basic of life: decent food, hosing and employment. Reform liberalism might be regarded as important focus of the modern Liberal Party of Canada.
“Conservative” comes from the Latin verb conservare, meaning “to save”. Conservatism emerged in the late eighteenth century in Britain, as a reaction against the excesses of liberalism. Perhaps the major thinker of the conservative tradition was the British statesman Edmund Burke (1729 – 97).
Early conservatives, such as Burke, believed that the monarch should have authority over the elected Parliament, and that the traditional organization of society and politics should be preserved. Later conservatives agreed that gradual, progressive change was acceptable, whereas radical, abrupt changes should be avoided.
Supporters of conservatism have a strong commitment to intellectual equality and believe that moral issues are sometimes a matter of public, not merely private, concern. They may, for example, favour some kind of censorship in order to protect what are perceived to be community standards.
Like classical liberals, conservatives are strong believers in economic freedom. Unlike both classical and reform liberals, conservatives have only a moderate commitment to intellectual freedom.
Some representatives in Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, when they were elected in 1984, tended to advocate economic freedom and intellectual equality. For example, certain government members argued for tax advantages to corporations, and stronger anti-pornography measures. These positions paralleled the traditional conservative position. Yet it is worth noting that other members of the same Conservative government advocated contrary positions.
The ideas that gave rise to socialism have been traced by some political scientists to the works of Plato, the great Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C. Modern socialist ideas are more closely linked to the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henri do Saint-Simon, and Robert Owen. The term “socialism” itself first became used extensively in the early nineteenth century, in the writings of commentators upon the Industrial Revolution. During the Industrial Revolution, manual tools were replaced by powerful machines, and the manufacturing operations were concentrated in large factories. Socialist theorists of the time believed that the community, not wealthy individuals or small groups of individuals, should own these industrial enterprises. Government intervention in the economy, they claimed, would produce economic equality. This, in turn, would make the individual truly free.
Like both classical and reform liberals, early socialists were believers in progress and the capacity of innovative ideas and institutions to improve society. They were generally in agreement with the liberal view that human beings were basically good. The essential difference between liberalism and socialism was that liberals believed individuals could be truly free with limited government, while socialists believed governments itself could make individuals free.
In Canada, the dividing line between socialism and reform liberalism, as represented by the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party, is sometimes unclear. Both parties have policies which support the economic equality of individuals in society. However, because the NDP also has policies which advocate the economic equality of workers in the workplace, it could be said to be more deeply rooted in socialism.
The thinkers most closely associated with early communism are Karl Marx (1818 – 83) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 95). Like the socialists, Marx had economic equality as his ideal. However, he thought that it would come about not by the cooperation of groups sharing property voluntarily, but rather by violent conflict because the people who held power would not give it up voluntarily.
Marx and Engels concentrated on the negative effects of capitalism. They saw history as a record of the struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. The most recent oppressors were the wealthy capitalists – the bourgeoisie – and the oppressed were the mistreated, underpaid workers – the proletariat.
Marx and Engels predicted that, in the industrialized nations of western Europe, the proletariat would eventually rise up and destroy the capitalist system. A new system would gradually progress through a number of stages, with the final and permanent one being communism. In theory, a truly communist society would see not only the abolition of private property, but also the disappearance (in Marx’s phrase, the “withering away”) of government. These two developments would bring about the economic equality of all people.
In fact, the various communist regimes in the world bear very little resemblance to the future society envisioned by Marx. For one thing, the first communist revolution, which took place in 1917, did not occur in industrialized western Europe (as Marx had predicted) but rather in czarist Russia, a country which, at the time, was still largely agricultural. In modern communist countries government has not withered away, as Marx suggested; on the contrary, it intrudes into every aspect of economic and intellectual life.
Socialist and communist ideologies resemble each other in that both advocate economic equality. However, socialists believe this is to be achieved peacefully, through government intervention.
Historically, fascism is largely regarded as a phenomenon of the period from the early 1920’s to the end of World War II in 1945. The word “fascism” is Italian in origin, and was first used by the Italian leader Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), who headed his country’s government from 1922 – 1943. Individual freedoms were permitted only if and when they contributed to the good of the nation.
In Mussolini’s view, all the economic and intellectual resources of the Italian state were to be directed towards the building of a militarily strong and fiercely proud, united country. In a fascist state, there was not room for intellectual freedom, and only limited room for economic freedom. While private property and private businesses existed, they were tightly regulated by the government which they were supposed to serve.
In virtually all countries of Europe except the Soviet Union, fascist movements of varying strength existed between the early 1920’s and 1945. Indeed, there were fascist movements in Canada at the time. Italy was the first self-proclaimed fascist state. Others soon came into being, of which the most notable one was Germany, where Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party took power in 1933.
Communism can be described as an ideology linked to a vision of the future. Fascism, on the other hand, can be described as an ideology which is linked to the past. It is based on the notion that a mythical, ideal age once existed which could be reborn. In this mythical era, the citizens were “racially pure” and were ranked in a strict social order ruled by a strong father figure. The Nazis also saw the Germans as a superior race descended from ancient Aryan warriors. Nazism was to be a process of recreating the ethnic purity and military supremacy which Germany had lost since that mythical time.
The fascist ideology found in Germany or Italy in the 1930’s is no longer practised. However, the term is still used occasionally to describe countries with a military government that keeps a tight reign on intellectual and economic life. The regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who in 1973 took over the government of Chile, is sometimes described as an example of modern-day fascism.