Customer Reviews: The Liberal Tradition in America
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on September 19, 2014
Hartz makes an interesting argument that America's political thought developed differently than in Europe because America never had feudalism and its rigid social classes. He asks, "Can a people 'born free' ever understand peoples elsewhere that have to become so?" It's an interesting question even now, given the Arab Spring upheavals, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and a violent Ukranian separatist movement. Many Americans may wonder why democracy, which took root so strongly in the United States, seems to have such trouble flourishing elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Hartz's style is that of one one well-versed intellectual to another who is equally grounded in the subject. This book is a hard slog. Hartz throws out last names of thinkers without their first names or even the briefest explanation of who they are. Here's a sample sentence from page 77 of the 1955 edition: "Obviously Sylvain Marechal, the author of this Babeuviste document, wanted to complete a social transformation already begun, and while there is no need to twist a religious collectivist dreamer like Winstanley into the French pattern, one can agree with Mr. Petegorsky that the Diggers cherished the same notion."
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on August 7, 2004
A retired professor in the history of ideas, I have before me the 1955 first edition. I turn to this book because of the enduring question why much of the world has a love/hate relationship with the United States of America. Much of the relationship is expressed in Thomas Jefferson's rationale for the Louisana Purchase, his idea of an "empire of liberty."

The history of the United States of America is a history of flight, first from Europe, than westward from the united colonies that declared their independence on July 4, 1776, all the way to the other end of the continent and beyond.

In the pursuit of individual liberty, manny of us fail to realize that freedom is the power to act, a power that marginalizes others, giving rise to continuing flight, the marginalized as immigrant.

But what of those people who can neither flee nor transform their own governments, feudal governments in alliance with our fragile planet's only superpower? For them the absence of flight becomes fight, the terrorism that frightens us.

As we near the 50th anniversary of THE LIBERAL TRADITION OF IN AMERICA in 2005, this book becomes must reading.

Ray Stroik
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on January 27, 2013
Penetrating insights into how the vast majority of America has come to unquestioningly embrace the notion that our rights, particularly property rights, are the based on natural or God given and are immutable.

The problem is that Harzt writes very opaquely and assumes a post-graduate level of background from his reader.

This is must-read for all who sense a need to Un-Locke America and rethink the basics.

But it sure ain't an easy one.
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on April 13, 2015
Louis Hartz’s “The Liberal Tradition in America” has become a hidden classic of American political and intellectual history. Hartz’s thesis is that the United States, as one of the only daughters of the liberal Enlightenment--is fundamentally a liberal nation. Despite the left-right divide of contemporary liberals and conservatives, most conservatives are a variant of liberal, and this is what Hartz highlights in the second half of his text.

Locke once said, “In the beginning, all the world was America” (Second Treatise of Government). Liberalism is a philosophy of property rights, individualism, and rationalism, often with close attachments to the idea of progress, market economics, and internationalism. Despite what one might read or listen to from ‘conservative’ media outlets, the contemporary Democratic Party and modern liberalism, as pre-eminent liberal political philosopher and Alan Wolfe has said of it, is essentially a modernized form of classical liberalism that still holds to these cornerstone liberal beliefs.

The uniqueness of America, in Hartz’s eyes, is that the United States never suffered from the baggage of Europe. Namely: no landed aristocracy, no Ancien Regime, no State Church, and no feudal (agrarian) heritage. Granted the Southern plantation owners are similar to the European aristocratic lineage and were tied to a form of agrarianism, and Protestantism was a “de-facto” religious heritage for the United States, even the Rural and Agrarian South didn’t exhibit the same tendencies of the European feudal, aristocratic, and agrarian tradition. Whereas European revolutionaries had to fight a social revolution AND a political revolution, Americans only had to fight a political revolution. In Hartz’s words, Americans are a people “born equal” and with this comes great irony--will Americans ever understand people who are born with oppressive social structures in society? [We seem to think if other people fight a political revolution, they will naturally be liberal, democratic, and secular because that's all we had to do]

The American tradition is also tied to property rights and rationalism. This ensures the other cornerstones of liberalism in American society. In contrast, the enemies of the liberal tradition, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Counter Enlightenment Conservatism (think Joseph Comte de Maistre, “Throne and Altar Conservatism”) are opposed to property rights, endorse suprarationalism and emotion over the primacy of reason, and strongly endorse the rule of aristocrats and a state Church (at least in Maistre's case). As all good students of the Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment know, Rousseau was a radical break with the liberal Enlightenment tradition. He saw the inversion of property rights as reaping class division and inequality. The Ancien Regime in France only heightened this disparity. Collectivism (Rousseau’s “General Will”) took primacy over individualism. He favored emotion over reason. As Hartz says, “The Ancien Regime inspired Rousseau, both inspired Marx” (speaking of the Ancien Regime and Rousseau). Therefore, the socialist tradition is deeply rooted in feudal agrarianism. It is rooted in notions of collectivism and romanticism that were outgrowths of Europe’s feudal past in reaction to the Enlightenment (this is why socialism and other Leftist traditions in the United States were agrarian in nature--the agrarian socialists led to the agrarian revolt in the 1880s, Eugene Debs in the early 1900s). Likewise, Counter Enlightenment Conservatism, authentic conservatism in the classical sense--not the contemporary American sense which is not conservatism but really neo-liberalism, is also founded upon the Ancien Regime, Europe’s feudal, aristocratic, and agrarian tradition but diverge with socialists about the ramifications of these cornerstones. (The irony that conservatism and socialism are actually born from the same foundational philosophy, and why conservatives like Metternich described himself as "a conservative socialist" and the conservative icons Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli embarked on the first widespread social reforms and establishment of a welfare state even though such policies are seen as not being conservative in America's misinterpretation of what conservatism is).

For Hartz, with America lacking the foundation that inspires socialism and conservatism, America will never experience a strong and authentic socialist or conservative movement. Hartz analyzes this through a discussion on the “conservatives” and the “social democrats” in the United States (the Romantic Nationalists of the South and the New Dealers of the more recent past). As Hartz notes, leading southern ‘conservatives’ actually started out their careers as liberal Jeffersonians. However, in their “conservative” turn they returned to the Ancient Greek philosophies for their inspiration. But here was their fatal flaw--unlike Counter Enlightenment conservatism which was anti-rational, endorse the suprarational, and embraced collectivism and an organic conception of society, the American “reactionaries” (as Hartz terms it, “the Reactionary Enlightenment”) still endorsed rationalism, individualism, and property rights--they merely attempt to prevent it from reaching its ultimate conclusion, namely property rights and freedom for everyone! Because the American conservatives defended their heritage, tradition, and lifestyle with liberal principles, they were doomed to fail. In essence, they weren’t really conservatives in any classical sense--more like “conservative” liberals, but still liberal. (Hint, this is why whenever we have “conservative” Republicans and Presidents, liberal policies continue, are increased, or even implemented).

Likewise, the social democrats associated with the New Deal are what the 1950s and 1960s communist Marxists described as “revisionists.” Essentially, the social democrats who expanded democracy, introduced social welfare, and embraced internationalism were protecting the liberal tradition rather than subverting it. Social welfare was seen as the tool to tame capitalism and prevent the proletariat revolution, and therefore keep the market economy in place. The rich could still get richer, albeit at a slower pace, but at least they wouldn’t have to fear an underclass revolution. Modern liberalism hopes to achieve just that. (Hint, this is why, even with the “liberal” Obama Administration, Wall Street is doing great, free-trade deals are still being sought, and the market economy is still intact. In fact, people who bemoan Obama as “not being liberal enough” actually have it backwards, Obama is a liberal, it is they who are not liberal, rather, they are more socialist or post-Marxist but just use the term liberal to describe themselves).

For Hartz, America is so liberal many Americans don’t realize they are liberals. We agree on almost everything that we argue with each other over the smallest details. For instance, does anyone really think that either the Republican or Democratic Party is ever going to abandon a defense of property rights (it's a right guaranteed in the U.S. constitution--5th Amendment), or that the internationalist project is going to be overthrown in a revolution, or that individualism is going to be socially or politically repressed? Since we’re all in agreement on these liberal cornerstones, we fight over the small details: how much welfare should we give out, how far should our internationalism go, or what individual expressions are permissible and which ones can be considered profane (flag burning, saying something socially inappropriate, etc.). While Hartz doesn’t seem to be 100% correct in his assessment, he does seem to be right that America is an inherently liberal nation, the only daughter of the Enlightenment, and as such, America will never have a vibrant, and authentic socialist or conservative movement.
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on October 24, 2005
The text is a bit dated; today such a single factor analysis, that the U.S. has had no serious counter Lockean political movement because we never experienced feudalism, is too simplistic to be accepted as a complete explanation. That does not mean that it is entirely off base.

Widely considered a classic.
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on October 15, 2015
Excellent and necesary for learn a tradiction liberal approach
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on February 5, 2015
Louis Hartz hits the nail on the head with this book!
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on May 24, 2016
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on November 1, 1999
Hartz answers the Red Scare of the 1950's with compelling observations and conclusions about America that might change the way you think of yourself and other Americans, and the political illusions we create. The writing style is rough and unattractive, but stick with it and try to figure out such concepts as liberals are really conservatives, and we've never experiened a real revolution, and why. Read Democracy in America first, or as a companion guide.
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