Back in February, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer did one of those things that help to mark him as one of the most interesting politicians of our age and continent. En route from Berlin for talks in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, Fischer stopped off for the first time in his life in the Baltic city that was once Königsberg and is for now Kaliningrad. He did so to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of the city's most famous son, laying a wreath and delivering an oration at the grave of Immanuel Kant.
Clutching his dog-eared copy of "The Critique of Pure Reason," Fischer told his audience of diplomats and philosophers how Kant, along with Hegel and Marx, remained one of his own greatest influences. An understanding of law and morality as the basis of the rational world was Kant's continuing legacy to the present, he argued. Kant's 1795 essay, "Perpetual Peace," which envisages a global association of republics, could even be seen as a pointer toward the creation of the U.N., Fischer suggested.
It is impossible to imagine many circumstances in which one of Britain's past or current ministers would reflect on the continuing influence and relevance of one our own great philosophers. Jack Straw, Fischer's opposite number, is a serious thinker, but he will not be taking a leaf out of the German foreign minister's book on Thursday to deliver a graveside tribute on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke.
Very few people appear to make the pilgrimage to Locke's last resting place, in a tomb against the church wall at High Laver in west Essex. When I went to pay my respects there last weekend, I had the church and his memorial to myself. No one had signed the visitors book for nearly two weeks. Locke's significance as a guiding spirit of the U.S. Constitution is duly marked by a church plaque erected by American admirers in 1957. But his importance in his own country is not acknowledged in any way. This neglect seems somehow bleakly appropriate of our current uncertainties.
Locke certainly has his faults, and his critics, and it is important not to romanticize him. There is confusion, self-contradiction and much that is unresolved in his thinking. He was a man of the 17th century, and his advocacy of tolerance did not extend to Catholics or to atheists. His civil society of free, equal and rational men essentially excluded women and the laboring poor. Yet you do not have to be an enthusiast for Locke to recognize the sheer scale of his contribution to British life or his central position at the fountainhead of so much that came later.
Indeed, it is hard to think of anything important about societies in general, and our own in particular, on which Locke did not have something pertinent and lasting to say. He is the essential philosopher of consensual constitutional government, the key expounder of the notions of the social contract, the sovereignty of the people, majority rule, minority rights and the separation of powers. He is our leading defender of individual civil liberty, the greatest advocate in our history of religious and civic tolerance and the first proponent of progressive educational methods, as well as the principal godfather of all those attitudes of common sense, reasonableness, kindness and politeness that later eras have so often thought of as essentially British.
So if anyone deserves to be the object of serious civic commemoration or reflection in Britain, then Locke surely qualifies. Yet this week's notable anniversary will pass here almost without notice. Elsewhere the interest is somewhat greater. Locke is generally taken more seriously in America, where a crude Lockean view of the contract between the individual (sovereign) and government (limited) remains widely held. Yet he has become a prophet without much honor in his homeland, even though he is the principal intellectual begetter of the 1688 constitutional settlement, which he did so much to legitimate and which has lasted from his day to ours.
I am not arguing for large-scale celebrations, renaming of streets, a special issue of postage stamps or even an anniversary lecture by Simon Schama on the BBC, although none of these would be unwelcome. But it seems more than a mere oversight that we do not even consider doing any of these things. There are, of course, special reasons why Germans should wish to recall and connect with Kant. But other European countries also have explicit places and rituals of honor for their own great thinkers and writers. Britain is unusually negligent in this respect, especially considering our riches and our strong, if conflicted, sense of national identity. So one has to wonder: Why?
The big answer is surely that we gradually lost sight of the liberalism of which Locke has such a large claim to be the source. And lost confidence in it too. A hundred years ago, Locke's position at the head of a still vibrant British liberal tradition seemed utterly secure. Since then, the liberal tradition has declined, has faltered and has even seemed to have spent itself. For much of the 20th century, socialism appeared to be the philosophy and program of the future, a stronger weapon to achieve wider social justice. In those circumstances, Locke inevitably appeared a more distant and less relevant figure. More radical and obscure 17th century icons, like the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and the Leveler Thomas Rainborough, seemed to have more to say to our times.
But socialism has failed. Even the era of the labor movement is passing inexorably away. We inhabit a world that has passed through the industrial socialist era and is emerging on the other side of it, dazed, disorientated and in search of new and more relevant signposts toward modern social justice and liberty. Capitalism has won the economic battle, albeit in a form that no 19th century capitalist would easily recognize. Socialism has become a religion, not a program. And liberalism, which to socialists seemed for so long to be merely temporizing and cowardly, has outlasted socialism.
Which is why, in turn, it is time to return to Locke and the tradition at whose head he still stands. Liberalism without social justice is not a political program in the democratic age. But nor, we should have learned from the 20th century experience, is social justice without liberalism. The things that Locke thought were important -- government by consent, the parliamentary system, civil liberty, freedom of thought and religion, the rights of minorities, an education that is more than functional, the rule of law -- have never seemed more modern than they do today. Disregard for these principles has marked every instance of the failed socialist experiment. And it is also perhaps the most lasting -- and least excusable -- of all New Labor's failings too. To the politics of the future, as of so much else, Locke still holds the key.