Liberalism has never had a prefabricated essence ascertained all at once or implemented with a coherent plan.
New in the Books section this week @Law and Liberty is a wonderful review by frequent contributor David Conway of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Conway’s reviews are always worth considering because he quotes the author at length allowing them to speak in their original voice before he weighs their arguments. Losurdo’s account of liberalism, Conway observes, is premised on disputing its worth because the interests and motives of those who are seen as its chief spokesmen so frequently run counter to the ideas they contend for. Thus the philosophy of liberalism is not analyzed so much for its content as are the failures and complexities of those thinkers who have championed it. On this point Conway argues:
It is doubtless a merit of Losurdo’s book that it obliges its readers to confront the fact that practically all of the most prominent classical liberals supported institutions or policies that today appear unacceptably illiberal in character. However, it is equally as large a corresponding defect of the book that its author appears in writing it to have been unable to suppose, even for a moment, that, in espousing such illiberal opinions, the authors whose views he considers might have been onto something, however unpalatable it might be today to acknowledge that they were. In a book, like Losurdo’s, that purports to be a work of history, this is an especially grave defect, for it is by no means as easy or straightforward a task to pronounce a sound moral judgement about a past practice.
Of course, turn-around is always fair play and Conway engages in his own deconstruction:
“Beginning again with southern plantation slavery, Marx was no less fervent a supporter of this institution than Calhoun. In 1846, Marx wrote of it”:
Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchal country… Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.
“Marx was equally as incipiently anti-Semitic as Losurdo argues Edmund Burke was. In 1844 the father of communism observed”:
We recognise in Judaism… a general anti-social element of the present time… Contempt for theory, art, history, and for man as an end in himself… is contained in an abstract form in the Jewish religion… Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible.
Conway provides other choice quotations to drive his point home. His conclusion on the book bears repeating:
While something can undoubtedly be learned from reading Losurdo’s counter-history of liberalism, it is more the continuing myopia of the left and readiness to distort the truth on their part in the interests of their cause than any genuine insight into that political tradition and its vicissitudes. An accurate and up-to-date authoritative historical account of the liberal tradition still remains to be written.