Towards the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the classical Liberalism underwent great modifications. It its modified form it came to be known as Modern Liberalism or Positive Liberalism.
It differed from the earlier or classical Liberalism in so far as it emphasized the positive rather than the negative aspect of liberty and presence of opportunities to attain the self-appointed goals, rather than freedom from the state. With the change in the goals, a change in methods was also effected.
It may be pertinent to ask as to why need for revision of Liberalism was felt? A number of factors were responsible for this.
Firstly, the success achieved by Liberalism in the nature of greater political and economic liberty for the aristocrats and bourgeoisie, encouraged them to demand similar concessions for the peasants and workers. As effective liberty for these sections could not be possible without positive action, they insisted on positive action by the state.
Secondly, in view of the enormous expansion in franchise, the Liberalism could not continue to promote the interests of the textile manufacturers of ‘Manchester alone and had to modify itself to accommodate the nationalist, democratic and socialist sentiments. Thirdly, with the growth of industries and cities, it became evident that economic freedom could lead to inequalities and oppression of certain sections.
Similarly, the non-interference by the stale in the economic sphere resulted in exploitation of child labour, growth of slums, and deterioration in the condition of the workers. This convinced certain Liberals of the need of state regulation of economic life and hence the need of revision in the old Liberalism. However, certain Liberals still clung to the old dogmas of non-intervention and free trade.
In the revision of Liberalism philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, T.H. Green, Harold Laski etc. played a notable role. Bentham laid emphasis on the principle of “greatest good of the greatest number” and insisted on the need of reforms in the field of law, education, parliamentary system, prisons, poor relief. Similarly Mill while championing the cause of individual liberty, wanted the state to interfere in those matters through which the social welfare of the people could be promoted.
He, therefore, favoured state regulation of education, contracts of marriage and slavery, working hours and working conditions of workers, fixation of minimum wages, compensation in case of injury etc.
But it was T.H. Green who openly pleaded direct intervention by the state to eradicate evils like ignorance, pauperism and drinking of liquor.
He wanted the state not merely to perform regulatory and protective functions, but to work for the removal for all those external hindrances which stood in the way of individual’s voluntary performance of good acts. Similarly Laski tried to bring about reconciliation between the principles of individual liberty and state interference. He considered the state as an important instrument for securing general welfare.
A brief look at the view of Mill, Green and Laski shows that the modern or positive Liberalism has certain distinct features and differs from the traditional Liberalism.
Firstly, while the Liberalism of nineteenth century took a two dimensional view of the human nature the revised Liberalism looks at the man not only as an individual in society but as a person with a continuing need for self-expansion and reintegration.
In other words, the modern liberalism attaches more importance to the individuals, subjective feeling of freedom and the circumstances which give to this feeling an objective reality rather than the impediments to motion.
Secondly, while the classical Liberalism considered the state as a necessary evil, the modern Liberalism considers the state as a positive instrument for the promotion of the general welfare of the community. It wants the State to participate in social, political, economic and cultural activities in the interest of the individual.
Thirdly, unlike the classical liberal thinkers who considered individual’s rights and liberties as natural the modern liberal thinkers consider the rights and liberties as the creation of the state, which can curtail them if they obstruct the welfare of the society.
Fourthly, in the economic sphere also the modern Liberalism unlike the classical Liberalism (which favoured complete economic freedom) is in favour of regulation and control of economic life in the larger interest of the community. It favours positive action in the part of the state for the removal of hunger, disease, poverty etc.
Before concluding this chapter it shall be desirable to examine the question as to how far the modified modern Liberalism can genuinely be described as Liberalism. At the outset it may be pointed out that even though there may be differences between the classical and the modern Liberalism, their objective still retains the same.
For example, the modern Liberalism still retains the end of autonomous individual like the classical Liberalism, even though the means for the attainment of that end and the proximate end have changed.
Again, the changes in the methods and policy of modern Liberalism have not only tended to reduce the arbitrary compulsion but also to extend the scope, equalize the distribution and enrich the liberty enjoyed by the individual. Finally, the constitutional rights and the rule of law have grown stronger in the sense that the state cannot be used to further the interests of any one group or class, but must be responsive and accountable to all.