If we take the Oxford dictionary, we’ll see that the term “liberalism” is defined as the philosophy “favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform”.
Is this a correct definition? Indeed, the quoted textbook tries to summarize a history lasting over two centuries in few brief lines. This is unsurprising, for that is the ordinary function of a dictionary. Nonetheless, a deeper reasoning is required.
In Marxist terms, which seem the most appropriate at least for what concerns its historical roots, liberalism has been the ideological product of the middle class emerging in the late 18th century. The idea of a society based on meritocracy and on productive capacity rather than on privilege and on divine rights was very attractive to the both ‘the productive’ and cultivated elements of western society at that time.
As we know, the greatest achievement of liberalism consisted in two fundamental revolutions, the American and the French ones, which eventually succeeded in establishing a new economic order based on two main pillars: private propriety on one hand and free market on the other.
However, although this is the reconstruction which is generally accepted, this historical description proofs itself to be quite superficial. Indeed, the assumption on which the conception at hand is based based is that liberalism has been spread equally all over Europe, mainly through the Napoleonic wars.
However, this is not true.
Indeed, even a careful look towards linguistics may revail such differences. Nowadays, in English-speeking countries the term “liberal” identifies someone who, while being openminded towards the necessity to have a market-based economy, is generally left-wing. It is to say that in the Anglo-American world, the notion of liberal is factually opposed to the word “conservative”, thereby indicating someone who has a rather traditionalist view of society, although not necessarily entailing a grater degree of openness towards the free market ideology.
This assumption has a more limited character for what concerns the British context. Indeed, the establishment of the Labour party in the late 19th century had the effect to substantially reduce the ideological differences between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Nevertheless, also in the light of their historic rivalry – which dates back to the Whigs and the Tories – Liberals still have their distinct identity from the main British right-wing party, which still expresses itself in the two Houses of the British Parliament.
The situation is extremely different in Continental Europe, perhaps with the only exception of France if we consider the major nations only. Especially when it comes to Germany and Italy, politically speaking, the term “liberal” has a quite different meaning. Indeed, excluding the very first years of the countries’ unity, which was respectively achieved between 1860 and 1870, there was no real “liberal” identity.
Indeed, German liberals never truely exited until the end of WW2, for interests of the old Prussian aristocratic élite and the capitalistic class were de facto represented by the militarist conservatives factions supporting the Kaiser’s authority. On the other hand, the same might be stated for Italy but for the opposite reasons. In fact, the very birth of the Italian State was mainly the political and ideological product of the Northern Italian élites, which managed to unify the Country through the use of force.
Indeed, all the political factions which resulted from the unification could be considered to be “liberal”, thereby understanding private property, elitism, anticlericalism, and a strong vocation towards Laissez faire to be values shared by all of them. Indeed the so close ideological similarities between the Italian politicians at that time surely favored the spread of parochialism and the growing clientelism on one hand and enhanced party-shifting on the other. In fact, as a general rule, Governments of that period are in general indicated as being an expression of the “historic right” and the “historic left”, thereby distinguishing them in the light of the particular interests they defended rather than by the policies which they respectively carried out, provided that they all fall within the framework of “liberalism”.
The birth of the mass-movements shortly before WW1 and the rise of Fascism in the 1920s factually destroyed the identity of Italian Liberals. Indeed, some of their opinion leaders became anti-fascists (e.g. Benedetto Croce), while some other liberals co-operated actively with the regime (e.g. Orso Mario Corbino and Giuseppe De Capitani d’Arzago, who became Ministers in Mussolini’s Government).
After the war, the “diaspora” of the Italian Liberals did not end. As in Germany, the political counter-party to the rising Communist Parties was mainly represented by the Christian Democrats, which factually became the grantors of the democratic structure of the Italian State and of its openness towards the free-market ideology and the West.
Finally, after the judicial scandals which putted an end to the order established after WW2, the last attempt to create a liberal identity was carried out by Berlusconi, but it substantially failed because of the instability of its Governments.
Consequently, we observe that in Italy that kind of “leftist right-wing” exemplified by US Democrats fundamentally became a constituent faction of the Italian social-democrats overtime. On the other hand, in Italy the term “liberal” seems to collide and mix up with the concept of conservatism, thereby meaning that the free-market ideology, the spirit of liberalization and the need for less State are generally conceived to be conservative values quite exclusively.
From this point of view, the problem consists in the present “tripolarization” of Italian politics. The consequence of such balance is that Catholics and liberals are now divided, as there is no compact front which stands for traditional right-wing values. Therefore, the establishment of a new movement, representing the interest of both catholic and “liberal” voters in the Italian meaning is, nowadays, the only way to save the legacy of more than 150 years of history which seems threatened by the unstoppable rise of populistic movements.