How 19th-Century Liberalism Would Evolve into its Ugly Cousin: Social Darwinism

The 19-century was one of transformations. Science, medicine, politics and industry progressed and advanced at a greater rate than it ever had in human history. As Professor Porter-Szucs put it “nothing seemed permanent.” Out of this new notion of perpetual mobility grew a revolutionary, if not entirely unique political philosophy, Liberalism. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was an early work which illuminated the natural, self-correcting tendencies of market forces. In this same vain of reasoning, Liberal thinkers began to admonish coercion, violence, and interference in all facets of life. In On Liberty John Stuart Mill established himself as a pioneer of Liberalism. Mill interpreted liberty to mean protection from tyranny, either of one man, many or a majority, and the freedom to do what one wills, as long as his course does not infringe on the liberty of others. Mill wrote in, or perhaps helped spark, a period of thought termed the Age of Liberalism, as it was in this age that the notions of human rights and limitations on government emerged. By the end of the 19th-century, Liberalism had evolved in a similar rapidity as had science, economics, demographics and technology.

As progress continued with greater inertia, as innovations built upon innovations, the use and interpretation of Liberalism changed immensely. Adam Smith and the late-19th century New Liberals (such as T.H. Green) focused on morality and ethics in human interaction. Mill similarly emphasized that power could only be employed “to prevent harm to others.” (Mill 13) Such idealism, however, contrasted with the true form society was quickly taking, in which man himself became a commodity, and David Ricardo’s theories of labor seemed to become a grim reality. The Liberalism under which so many nations and states had transformed into quasi-democratic societies became at once a tool for proponents and opponents of the new age, in which the peasant had become the wage laborer, the noble the factory owner. While, as previously noted, T.H. Green lamented this new, but vaguely familiar construct of society, Herbert Spencer celebrated. For Spencer, Liberalism meant the freedom for the “survival of the fittest” and the advancement of humanity to progress unabated by external forces. For Spencer, evolution was a path to perfection, rather than a readjustment to changing circumstances. Applying this theory to human society, Spencer’s perversion of Liberalism would in part lead to the emergence of Social Darwinism and eugenics, and eventually to the horrors of Nazi racial theories.

While the legacy of Liberalism is at once human rights and freedom, it also produced a terrible second legacy. Such is the nature of the legacies, in fact, of all the major transformations of the 19th-century. Medicine produced both increased longevity and provided the tools for eugenics to be implemented. Industry produced both a greater material base and an almost permanent subsistence class. Technology produced both unprecedented new tools for progress as well as tools of unprecedented destructive capabilities.

Such a dual legacy of new ideas and capabilities illustrates that in every age, it is incumbent upon contemporary men and women to utilize the new means of their age to a particular end. Just as so many countless other political and social movements have perverted its original ideas, so too did enough adherents of Liberalism.


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