Ian Dunt's 10 best books on liberalism
Posted on November 18 2020
1. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
This is the most comprehensive account of liberalism, a fact which has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantage is that, unlike my book, or really any other that I know of, you can read this and get a sense of almost every aspect of liberalism. It is a one-stop shop and a seriously impressive intellectual accomplishment. The downside is that this comprehensiveness means you do not find out very much about anything and the book struggles for a concrete sense of narrative. So this is really a springboard for further reading: a readable, immensely knowledgeable first-year undergraduate course you can fit in your bag.
2. The Putney Debates by The Levellers, introduced by Geoffrey Robertson
It's not an easy sell this - a transcript of a meeting held in the 17th century. But there's a couple reasons to dive right into it. The first is that the Putney Debates are an unparalleled moment in political history. Right then and there - amid war, revolution and mutiny - we see one of the first debates on individual rights and democracy. The second is precisely that it is a transcript. It's incredible that it exists, but through some glorious fluke of history it was taken down in a form of early shorthand and then discovered in the 19th century. And that means that you almost get to be there, just dumping in this extraordinary moment when the new world starts to burst into the old.
3. Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments by Benjamin Constant, translated by Dennis O'Keeffe
Not exactly a snappy title, but the contents inside are remarkable. Constant's most important work is one of the first outlines of a properly modern liberalism, and it throbs with relevance, eloquence, and startling moral insight. "There is a part of human existence which necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction," he wrote. "If society crosses this boundary, it becomes as guilty of tyranny as the despot whose only claim to office is the murderous sword." This is gorgeous stuff, beautifully expressed and of vital importance both in the history of ideas and for its current relevance.
4. The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs
Harriet Taylor is the most under-recognised figure in the history of liberalism and this collected edition of her work shows why. It's split into sections - one on women, one on other issues and a third collecting her letters. It shows someone bursting with ideas, good judgement, eloquence, a wicked turn of phrase and moral bravery. The writing on women's rights in particular is forensic, radical and pulsating with righteous indignation.
5. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
Although technically just by Mill, this is in fact a joint work with Harriet Taylor, his wife. There is, simply put, no more important work in the history of liberalism. It can be tough going, although it is short. And yet just when you think you might get bored, you suddenly come across a thought so powerfully expressed and profound that it will stop you in your tracks. It outlines the full form of modern liberalism and the basis upon which it is reached. But more than that, hidden away in its pages is a guide to how to live your life, to make your own choices, to have authorship over your destiny: most of all, to be eccentric.
6. John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946 by Robert Skidelsky
This is arguably the most highly regarded of the works on Keynes. In fact, it's a one-volume summarised edition of his trilogy, but will provide more than enough material for the casual reader. Keynes is crucial for his economic theory, which took the nascent egalitarian liberalism in Mill and developed it into a system of economics which changed the world. But his life was also fascinating on its own terms. He lived like a true liberal - resisting definition, on his sexuality, his interests, his social life and his ideas.
7. Essays by George Orwell
This collection of George Orwell's essays contains some of the most well-loved and important of his writings, including Why I Write and A Hanging. But most importantly it carries some of the articles which best define his form of liberalism. Shooting an Elephant is like reading a liberal origin story, in which Orwell speaks of the pressure he felt from a crowd watching him, and the unspoken sense that he would not allow himself to conform to those expectations in future. The Lion and the Unicorn contains an inclusive view on patriotism which can be adopted by liberals. Notes on Nationalism talks about the categorisation of humanity and how we often rent out our conscience to the group identity. It's crucial, masterful stuff, and happens also to be a masterclass in journalistic writing.
8. Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff
Ignatieff does not really delve into Berlin's ideas in this book - for that you'll need to explore Berlin's own writings - which, by the way, are a pleasure to read, unlike most liberal philosophers. But he makes up for it by providing this dream-like, poetic account of Berlin's life, an intimate story, told as if from a bygone world. There is a moment towards the end of the book, when Berlin can feel the end of his life approaching, when he suddenly reaches out to his interviewer, a moment when all the artifacts of his sociability fade away and he becomes concerned for what he leaves behind. This is a remarkable life, told in a remarkable way.
9. Two Cheers For Democracy by EM Forster
EM Forster is not usually talked about for his politics, but instead for his beautiful, vivid, generous novels. But his articles are the work of a liberal with a very deep understanding of what it demands, right down in his bones. Forster's advantage over most other liberal thinkers is his great capacity with language but also, more importantly, his limitless empathy. He is a tremendously kind and sincere man. The political and social elements of his writing contained in this book, liberal to the core, sparkle with moments of profound insight.
10. Theories of Multiculturalism: An Introduction by George Crowder
Good solid bit of academic liberal work for you to finish things off. Don't worry, Crowder is one of those very rare political academics who writes in an engaging, easy to understand way. Anyone can pick up this book and, as long as they're willing to pay attention, understand the entirety of the debate he's addressing. I've included this book because there should be some academic work here - it gives you a sense of how liberal theory advances. But more than that, this subject matter is fascinating. These are the theories underlying the news stories you read every day, on faith schools or hijabs, for instance. They concern the extent to which the state is obliged to support groups within society, and the boundaries of where that support must end. If you've ever felt frustrated by the crude categories of identity politics, then this book is for you. It explains how you support people in their identity while still protecting the individual inside it.