Liberalism may be used to describe one of several ideologies that claims individual liberty to dissent from orthodox tenets or established authorities in political or religious matters, in contrast to conservatism and/or communitarism.
- One usage of the term is for a tradition of thought, that tries to circumscribe the limits of political power, and to define inalienable individual rights. This usage is more common in continental Europe.
See: classical liberalism or libertarianism.
- Another, less common usage, is to denote the tradition of various liberal parties. However, though said liberal parties were originally founded on the tradition above, they significantly diverged from it since they came to power in the 19th century, and liberal parties around the world are now based on a variety of unrelated ideologies, so the ideological content of the word depends on the geographical context.
See: political liberalism.
- Another, common usage, denotes the ideology of social-democracy, as defended by the liberal party in UK since the early 20th century, under the influence of Fabianism. It is with this background that Keynes claimed to be liberal in the 1930s, and that many American leftists claimed to be liberal. This usage is very popular in the United States.
See: new liberalism.
- A limited usage is to denote the tradition shared by authors like John Locke or John Stuart Mill, up to the mid 19th century.
- Some commentators try to distinguish in the "liberal philosophy" (which meaning between 1, 3, or 4 remaining unspecified) a "political liberalism" from an "economical liberalism". These dichotomies reflect more about the ideology of those who make such a dichotomy, than about the ideology of anyone else.
- In addition to the political usages above, the term "liberal" is also used in theology to refer to people who hold to views which depart from their religion's traditional beliefs.
See: liberal theology.
The common meaning of terms evolve: whereas the word "liberal" was clearly associated to meaning 1
(classical liberalism) in the 19th century, it has come to commonly have meaning 3 (new liberalism) in the US after World War II, and particularly as McCarthyism made the word socialism difficult to bear, and left-wingers massively adopted the name "liberal". For this reason, US classical liberals adopted the name "libertarian", which leads to other confusion with European connotations of the term. Recently, the word "liberal" has been so much used as a derogatory term by US conservatives that many US liberals (meaning 3) prefer to shun the word "liberal" and call themselves "progressive". In the UK, meanings 1, 2, 3 coexist, since liberalism as an ideology will be understood by scholars as classical liberalism, whereas there is an active political party named the Liberal Democratic Party, and meaning 3 is imported from the US, including the derogatory usage by conservatives. However, the derogatory connotation is weak, and social liberals from both the left- and right-wing continue to use "liberal" and "illiberal" to describe themselves and their opponents.
Liberals are sometimes referred to as Methodological Individualists