Freedom from Fear: An Incomplete History of Liberalism


The story of liberalism is a long and winding one, tracing back centuries to the Enlightenment philosophers who first articulated liberal ideals. At its core, the liberal project has been driven by a desire to construct a society free from the dominance of fear – fear of state oppression, fear of societal violence, fear of discrimination based on identity or belief.

Liberalism arose as a counterweight to the arbitrary authority and power structures that had reigned for millennia across human civilization. Its early proponents like John Locke and Voltaire advocated for liberty of thought and expression, constraints on state power, protections for individual rights, and the separation of church and state. The liberating potential of reason, science, and free inquiry animated the liberal worldview.

As liberalism evolved and spread, it took many forms – from the constitutional liberalism of the American and French Revolutions to the classical economic liberalism of Adam Smith to the modern liberalism synthesizing freedoms with a social safety net. But underlying all its permutations was a consistent vision – to replace a world regulated by tradition, hereditary privilege, and brute force with one governed by the rule of law, protection of essential freedoms, and the consent of the governed.

This liberal endeavor to attain a “freedom from fear” faced innumerable obstacles and setbacks across the centuries. Periods of reactionary backlash, imperialist aggression, economic calamity, and ideological challenges from doctrines like fascism and communism impeded liberalism’s path. Even liberal societies struggled to fully live up to their professed ideals, as rights were incompletely extended and fears persisted for marginalized groups.

Yet for all its shortcomings, the influence of liberalism has been profound. It catalyzed the transition of the West towards becoming rights-respecting, democratic societies with robust civic freedoms and limits on absolutist authority. The “Four Freedoms” articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – encapsulated the evolving liberal vision.

As we enter the 21st century, however, new and insidious fears confront the liberal order. Resurgent authoritarianism, technology’s double-edged effects, growing inequality and social stratification, and ecological collapse all imperil liberalism’s quest for a society emancipated from the shackles of fear.

This article chronicles the ongoing, incomplete journey of the liberal project and its central promise – to forge a world free from the dominance of fear in all its guises, and to fully realize the blessings of liberty for all humankind.

The Origins of Liberal Thought

The intellectual foundations of liberalism took shape during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, an era defined by a re-awakening of reason, science, and secular philosophy across Europe. Thinkers in this period revolted against the long legacy of arbitrary power exercised by monarchies, the nobility, and state-backed religious institutions.

In his seminal work Two Treatises of Government, English philosopher John Locke articulated a theory of natural rights – that all individuals possess certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and property that should be protected from government overreach. He argued that legitimate government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, not divine blessing or hereditary status.

The French Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu expanded on these liberal ideals. Voltaire was a firebrand for freedom of religion and expression, battling the censorious habits of the French monarchy. Montesquieu emphasized the critical importance of separating governmental powers to prevent despotism. Diderot’s Encyclopedie project sought to spread the light of reason and knowledge.

These thinkers united in rejecting the supremacy of tradition, religious dogma, and throne-and-altar power structures that had subjugated human freedom and inquiry for centuries. They posited human beings as reasoning agents deserving of liberty and emancipation from arbitrary authority. The ancient deference to monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical power began to dissolve in face of these revolutionary liberal ideas. 

It’s critical to note that the Enlightenment liberals by today’s standards still held views that were racist and sexist. Figures like Locke defended slavery and imperialism. But for their era, they represented radically egalitarian and liberating concepts – the universality of natural rights, The Early Victories of Liberalism

The ideas seeded during the Enlightenment bore fruit with the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century. These worldshaking events represented the first major attempts to institutionalize liberal principles into the foundations of modern nation-states.

The American colonists revolted against the arbitrary taxation and oppressive policies of the British crown, enshrining ideals of liberty, representative government, and individual rights in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. While imperfectly realized given the original sin of slavery, the American experiment established important precedents – the separation of church and state, a Bill of Rights protecting free speech and assembly, and a constitutional republic with checks on government power.

Across the Atlantic, the French Revolution was even more radical, fueled by Enlightenment philosophies. The revolutionary rallying cries of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” sought to sweep away the hierarchies of the ancien régime. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man asserted the inviolable rights to liberty, property, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. For a turbulent period, the French revolutionaries overthrew monarchy and embraced values of citizenship, secularism, and legal equality.

However, the French Revolution rapidly devolved into feverish violence, as radical factions violently purged perceived enemies and counter-revolutionaries. The Reign of Terror saw over 16,000 executed and drowned the Revolution’s lofty liberal rhetoric in blood. This spiral of fear and oppression presaged the many challenges liberalism would face.

The 19th century witnessed the rise of competing liberal and conservative ideological currents vying for mastery in Europe. While aristocratic-monarchist reaction tried stamping out liberalism after the French Revolution, the liberal movement steadily gained ground.

In Britain, the Whigs and philosophers like John Stuart Mill advocated for expanding economic and political freedoms. Worker uprisings like the Peterloo Massacre galvanized demands for democratic reforms. Landmark liberal achievements included the Reform Act expanding voting rights, and the repeal of the punitive “Corn Laws” in a victory for free trade economics.

Meanwhile on the European continent, the 1848 “Revolutions of the Liberals” saw uprisings across the Austrian Empire and German principalities calling for constitutions, democratic representation, and greater civil liberties, before being crushed by reactionary forces. The ideas of liberalism persisted, but faced violent suppression by monarchist and imperial powers.

Liberal Reforms and Backlash

The latter half of the 19th century marked an uneven but measurable advancement for liberal policies throughout the Western world. Inspired by the philosophies of thinkers like John Stuart Mill and the economic doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism, most European nations and the United States liberalized trade, reduced state economic controls, and extended voting franchises and civil liberties.

Britain led the way, undergoing a series of Reform Acts that finally achieved universal male suffrage and secret ballots by the 1880s. Restraints on free expression, organization, and religious freedoms were steadily lifted. Similar reforms extended the liberal democratic franchise across Western Europe and settler societies like Canada and Australia.

However, there remained glaring deficiencies in how these purportedly liberal societies practiced their values. Women were still denied the basic rights of citizenship like voting. Racial and ethnic minorities suffered systemic discrimination and violence, from the plight of Native Americans in the US to pogroms against Jews in Russia.

And abroad, the European imperial powers exported illiberal brutality through globe-spanning colonial conquests and the resort to scorched earth tactics against rebellions by subjugated populations. The gulf between liberal rhetoric and reality remained a source of hypocrisy and moral rot.

The advance of liberalism also spawned reactionary backlashes, as economic dislocation, class divides, and ethnic-nationalist movements took root in the rapidly industrializing societies of this era. On the right, aristocratic landed elites and state churches fought rear-guard actions against liberal reforms. On the left, socialists, communists, and anarchists arose as radical ideological challengers to liberalism and capitalism.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Europe teetered on the precipice. While liberalism had achieved major strides, the undercurrents of fear – of change, of the “other”, of social upheaval – were building. The coming decades would show that the path to realizing a true “freedom from fear” would meet daunting new obstacles.

The Crises of the Early 20th Century

The first half of the 20th century brought a series of seismic shocks that severely tested and nearly shattered the liberal order. Two world wars, economic calamity, the rise of murderous totalitarian ideologies – these successive traumas inflicted immense violence and suffering while challenging liberalism’s guiding principles.

World War I shattered the long 19th century period of relative peace and progress in Europe. What began as a regional conflict between Serbian nationalists and the Austro-Hungarian Empire rapidly escalated, fueled by a noxious blend of militarism, imperialism, ethnic chauvinism and the armed alliances crisscrossing the continent.

The mechanized slaughter and trench warfare of the Great War produced over 37 million military and civilian casualties. It undermined public faith in liberal values and institutions that had proven incapable of preventing such a cataclysm. Liberalism’s emphasis on reason, international law and abhorrence of authoritarianism seemed naive follies in the wake of the war’s rivers of blood.

In the political vacuum created by the conflict, new anti-liberal forces rushed in, threatening the very survival of the liberal project. In Russia, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution violently overthrew the monarchy and ushered in over seven decades of communist totalitarian rule hostile to liberal capitalism and democracy.

The interwar period also witnessed the rise of fascist and militarist movements in nations like Italy, Germany and Japan – explicitly rejecting liberal governance and civil liberties in favor of belligerent ultra-nationalism, state corporatism and racial ideologies. These forces gained traction by channeling popular fears over economic dislocation, national humiliation and ethnic resentments following the war.

Liberalism’s darkest hour came with the rise of Nazi Germany and the unleashing of World War II in Europe. Hitler’s virulently racist national socialist movement represented an existential ideological threat to the Enlightenment tenets of universal rights and human equality. Nazism instead preached the dangerous myths of ethnic and cultural supremacy, scapegoated minorities like Jews, and pursued totalitarian one-party rule.

The war’s unfathomable toll – over 70 million dead, mechanized genocide, cities laid to waste – scarred humanity’s very soul. The Holocaust, which industrialized the mass murder of 6 million Jews and other minorities, inflicted one of history’s most heinous assaults on the core liberal ideals of human dignity and freedom.

In the face of such horrors, liberalism seemed to falter. Only the most unbending faith in its values, and the Allied military crusade against the Axis Powers, prevented its utter demise. Yet the cataclysms of the early 20th century laid bare the fragility of liberalism and freedom in the face of humanity’s most atavistic impulses.

Post-War Liberal Revival and Challenges

From the ashes of World War II, the Western liberal democracies resolved to remake the international order to prevent such a descent into barbarity from ever recurring. An unprecedented era of institution-building sought to entrench liberal values on a global scale.

The United Nations was formed as a forum for international cooperation and upholding human rights principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 established a shared ethical framework across cultures for safeguarding basic freedoms and human dignity.

In the West, the late 1940s and 1950s saw a flurry of trans-Atlantic efforts to consolidate liberal capitalist democracy. The Marshall Plan revitalized war-torn European economies, while the NATO alliance fortified collective security against Soviet aggression. The European Economic Community and OECD promoted integration through free markets and economic cooperation.

Perhaps most importantly, West Germany and Japan – former actors in the Axis war machine – underwent democratic transformations to become stalwart pillars of the liberal world order. Their constitutions enshrined civil liberties, democratic institutions, and prohibitions on future militarism.

Yet within this liberal revival, the undercurrents of fear had not fully subsided. The specter of communism loomed ominously over the post-war period. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states actively opposed Western liberal democracy and capitalism, fueling a tense Cold War rivalry. 

Within the US, fear of domestic communist subversion spurred Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “Red Scare” hearings and witch-hunts that ruined lives and violated core liberal due process rights. This climate of fear and intolerance clashed jarringly with America’s self-image as a beacon of liberty.

The civil rights movement also exposed how liberal democracy remained an incomplete promise for African Americans and other marginalized groups. Despite hard-won liberal victories like the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, Jim Crow segregation persisted alongside systemic discrimination, racial violence, and denial of voting rights across the South. Achieving true “freedom from fear” for all remained elusive.

The Trials of Late 20th Century Liberalism

As the 20th century transitioned into its latter half, liberalism faced a series of new stresses and challenges that strained its governing precepts and moral foundations. While consolidating its foothold across the Western world, liberal democracy simultaneously revealed its shortcomings and vulnerabilities.

The 1960s witnessed a profound cultural upheaval and reassessment of liberal values across the United States and Western Europe. A youth-driven counterculture questioned authority, protested the Vietnam War, and pushed for expanded civil rights, women’s liberation, and environmental protections. To many, mid-century liberal society remained impoverished by material affluence, conformity, and institutional injustice.

The tumultuous 1960s upended the social fabric and highlighted liberalism’s unfinished agenda. Momentous liberal breakthroughs like the Civil Rights Act finally outlawed racial segregation and codified voting rights protections across America. Yet guerilla factions like the Black Panthers argued legal equality within the existing system was inadequate without economic justice and empowerment.

Meanwhile, a “New Left” galvanized student protests from Paris to Berkeley. While espousing liberal-egalitarian rhetoric, some elements of the movement embraced strains of anti-capitalist, anarchist and communist thought – ideological foes seeking liberalism’s overthrow. The turmoil of the era reflected genuine liberal shortcomings, but also exposed liberalism’s centrist flank to radical attacks.

The 1970s and 80s saw liberalism grapple with new economic challenges as post-war prosperity sputtered. The oil shocks, stagflation, and deindustrialization severely tested Keynesian demand-management and social welfare liberalism. Thinkers like Milton Friedman promoted free-market fundamentalism eviscerating state intervention.

Neoconservatives like Irving Kristol mounted a critique of the “New Class” of liberal professionals, academics, and bureaucrats. This backlash at times embodied visceral cultural hostility towards the social ruptures of the 1960s. As the liberal elite seemed detached and ineffective, popular fears over urban unrest, crime, and unchecked immigration fueled a rightward shift.

Of deeper consequence, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 destabilized the Muslim world while spawning Islamist extremism – a new strain of anti-liberal theocratic violence that would metastasize over coming decades. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further complicated the global struggle against radicalism. Liberalism faced ideological competition not just from leftist foes, but also increasingly from a resurgent anti-modern fundamentalism.

Yet liberalism demonstrated resilience in facing these economic and cultural challenges. The late 20th century saw democratic transitions in South Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia as liberal norms of freedom, human rights, and elections spread. The West prevailed in the Cold War as the ossified Soviet system collapsed under the weight of liberal capitalism.

The 1980s revival of classical liberal economics under Reagan and Thatcher renewed liberalism’s economic dynamism. But serious shortcomings remained unaddressed – surging inequality, neglected working class stagnation, and the intractable legacies of racism and discrimination. As a new millennium dawned, liberalism enjoyed a “world revolution” of apparent ideological victory – yet looming socio-economic fears and externalities threatened its underbelly.

21st Century Perils and Perseverance

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, liberalism faced a world growing more interconnected yet fractured – integrated by globalization, technology and free markets, while rived by inequality, extremist ideologies, and clashing cultural-ethnonationalist identities. 

The September 11th attacks and ensuing War on Terror branded the early 2000s with the renewed specter of violence and existential dread. Al-Qaeda’s radical Islamist terror network sought to sow chaos across Western societies and remake the world order through mass violence. It exploited globalization itself as a vector to spread its toxic anti-liberal ideology.

Liberal democracies responded by constricting civil liberties, expanding surveillance, curtailing due process, and waging protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that ultimately undermined liberal values and credibility. Hitherto unseen alliances against terrorism emerged between Western nations and authoritarian states.

The 2008 global financial crisis inflicted further wounds on economic liberalism. Rooted in reckless deregulation of finance and growing inequality, the ensuing Great Recession battered livelihoods and faith in liberal market capitalism worldwide. The perceived failures of mainstream liberal governance fueled a decade-long populist backlash.

Across Europe and the United States, strident nationalist movements proliferated – wrapping economic grievances over globalization together with fears over immigration, automation, and rapid cultural-demographic change. European civilizationism and nativist politics gained strength, while America succumbed to polarization, racial animus, and a disappearing middle class fueling resentment at liberal coastal elites.


The liberal journey towards a “freedom from fear” has been a long and arduous one – an incomplete project still very much in progress. From its Enlightenment origins to its revolutionary instantiation to its 20th century battles against totalitarianism, liberalism has weathered countless storms yet persevered.

Liberalism catalyzed the transition from the age of hereditary aristocracy to the age of rights, democratic consent, and personal liberty. Its spread gradually displaced the dominance of dogma, intolerance, and absolute authority across the West.

Yet liberalism’s nobler visions of emancipating humanity from ancient oppressions and dread have continually confronted stubborn forces of backlash and regression. Illiberal ideologies, social upheaval, economic rapacity, and humanity’s worst atavistic impulses remain threats.

In the 21st century, liberalism faces challenges as dynamic as any prior era. Resurgent authoritarianism and civilizational splintering, technology’s double-edged impacts, the fragility of truth and reason, and looming ecological crisis all imperil liberalism’s governing ideals.

Whether the liberal project can fully realize its aspirations of a world free from the dominance of fear remains an open question. Its survival may hinge on addressing its inherent contradictions and limitations – the legacies of exclusion, the disruptions of unfettered capitalism, the degradation of civic virtue.

The tale of liberalism is one of profound achievement yet equally profound unfinished business. Its quest to forge a society unshackled from ancient menaces like oppression, discrimination, and violence remains a perpetual struggle. The enduring strength of its moral foundations will be tested as new challenges arise.

For as liberalism’s journey attests, the forces arrayed against human liberty and flourishing in an emancipated condition are tenacious and protean. Complacency risks backsliding into old harbors of fear. Only a resilient, ever-reforming liberal vision can hope to navigate towards a truly fear-free future for all.


Fawcett, Edmund. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, 1992.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Vintage Books, 1996.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Penguin Classics, 2006.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Monarchy of Fear. Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. W.W. Norton, 2007.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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