Whatever the answer, though, a person was seen as something more than an individual, and the purpose of a liberal order was precisely that it enabled people to develop themselves and achieve “personhood.”
Again, this is not a uniquely liberal perspective, but where liberalism differs from other ideologies is in how it believes that this process of achieving personhood is achieved. In Western liberal thought, this process relies first on certain abstract principles and second on certain institutions that give these principles expression.
Scholars differ in their assessment of what these principles and institutions are, but roughly speaking the former include ideas such as liberty, autonomy, equality, pluralism, universalism, progress and reason, while the latter include institutions such as private property, free markets, democracy, the rule of law, and legally-enshrined human rights.
Elements of all of these can be found in the history of Russian liberalism, but with a specifically national twist. In Western Europe, liberal ideas developed in tandem with the creation of a bourgeois class, and largely represented that class’s material interests. In Russia, the ideas arrived from the West prior to the establishment of a large bourgeois class. Moreover, when such a class came into being, it tended to be quite conservative, in large part because the Russian economic system tied private industry and the state closely together. Liberalism instead became the purview of that part of the noble estate known as the intelligentsia. Its proponents were academics, lawyers, journalists and the like. Not for nothing was the leading liberal party of the late Imperial era, the Kadet party, known as a “party of professors.” Outside urban professionals, the party had almost no support, especially among workers and peasants, who showed little interest in liberalism.
Liberalism’s social base has remained equally narrow in modern times. In so far as there was a Soviet liberalism during the communist era, it was to be found among intellectuals and so-called “ITRs” (inzhenerno-tekhnicheskie rabotniki
– engineering technical workers). Nowadays, the core of liberalism’s support is to be found in the “creative classes,” described
by Mark Lipovetsky as “a strange unity of software engineers, intellectuals, scholars/scientists, architects, designers, university professors, people of art – in a word, those selling the product of their creative activity.” Prior to the 1917 revolution, Kadet party leader Pavel Miliukov commented
that “Russian liberalism was not bourgeois but intellectual.” This remains largely true today.An elitist group
Historians have noted a number of consequences of this phenomenon. These include a tendency towards abstraction and even on occasion dogmatism, as well as a tendency to concentrate on issues that deeply concern intellectuals but have little relevance to the lives of ordinary people. These are of course generalizations, but they contain a germ of truth.