Liberalism as a whole was a massive movement that made itself felt in all the countries of Western Europe and in America, but it’s most characteristic development took place in England. It was also strong in Holland and Spain. In Germany, the liberal philosophy remained for the most part academic. In France, liberalism far more than in England, tended to be the social philosophy of a class, rather aristocratic in its attitude towards the masses, and mainly critical in function since it could hardly aspire to carry through a national policy. Political liberalism here arose as a protest against tyranny, but the working class movement which was radical and socialist in its outlook and which also incorporated the Marxist thought of class struggle was a great hindrance to the liberal doctrine taking deep roots in France.
Only in England, which throughout the nineteenth century was the most highly industrialized country in the world, did liberalism achieve the status at once of a national philosophy and national policy. It provided the principles for an orderly and peaceful transition, first to complete freedom for industry and the enfranchisement of the middle class and their protection against the most serious hazards of industry. For the proper study of liberalism, it is customary to divide it into two periods known as ‘classical or negative liberalism’ and ‘welfare or positive liberalism’. In this unit, we shall study classical liberalism.
The division is necessary because in its initial stage, liberalism presented itself as a philosophy of the rising middle class, but in its larger stage, it developed into a philosophy of a national community whose ideal was to protect and conserve the interests of all classes. Classical liberalism was the product of revolutionary era. It championed the cause of the newly emerging bourgeoisie against absolute monarchical and feudal aristocracy. It was highly individualistic. Individual and social interests were seen as contradictory. On the other hand, the distinctive feature of welfare liberalism was a recognition of the reality and the value of social and community interests (along with individual interests). Its attempt was not only to conserve political and civil liberties which individualism of the early era had embodied, but also to adapt them to the progressive changes brought about by industrialism and nationalism.