A Marxist Historian Offers a Counter-History of Liberalism

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.

Reader Discussion

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on December 13, 2012 at 21:58:58 pm

Any history of liberalism is bound to be fraught with contradictions, hypocrisy, and venality, because liberalism is not so much a historical phenomenon as a psychological one. The ideologies of liberalism are not made of whole cloth, but are instead fashioned around psychological needs and quirks. Investigation of the disparate liberal causes will reveal a common thread that arises, not from enlightened reason, but from an emotional response to social forces.

The contradictions of liberal appeals for "the children," in the face of opposition to school vouchers; nannyist bullying over private dietary choices amidst calls for liberalizing drug laws; and simultaneous condemnation of and participation in hateful rhetoric are easy to understand once one notices the common tell. There is a singular root of environmentalism, gun control fervor, redistributionism, population control, antagonism toward competition, and demands for soul killing conformity: There is just something about other people that bugs liberals.

Liberals are threatened by other people's freedom, because they are anxious about what those people will do with that freedom. Can just anybody really be trusted with a gun? And what if letting parents choose their children's education leads to doctrines that are...undesirable? A liberal is a person for whom compassion for others in the abstract justifies disdain for them in reality. This is why liberals are much more fond of calling for higher taxes than they are of private charity. They have a bargain for you: do not threaten them with your freedom, your competitive spirit or your aspirations and they will will try to see to it that you get by. Decipher the words "sustainable," "diversity," and "progress" and you will find a misanthropic antipathy for others. The blindness that accompanies admiration of Marx, or Che, or Margaret Sanger illustrates the true nature of hard-core liberalism.

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on February 16, 2013 at 20:58:23 pm


I'm afraid that you are using the "pop politics" definition of liberalism, rather than the academic definition that Reinsch, Conway, and Losurdo are using it in. They mean liberalism as in free markets, individual liberty, representative democracy, constitutions, etc. In this sense, virtually every major political force in the Western world is liberal, just different on different ends of the liberal spectrum. I believe you were referring to the policies of the US Democratic Party in your comment; the Democrats are liberals, certainly, but so is the vast majority of the Republican Party- perhaps all of the Republican Party, although I think one could argue that the Bachmann/Santorum type of Republican espouses an illiberal political philosophy.

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on August 24, 2013 at 02:14:35 am

Liberalism is a pop movement above all. How could it be so successful without the people creating their own understanding of it ? And it it happened that people loves these contradictions more than the creators.
How could it happen that over a century is spent in liberating female sexuality, creating proud women who take full responsibility for their own sex, but when it comes to children, the men still have the full legal responsibility? And this goes on without protests?
Its just the continuation of Free marked at your place, but not at ours.
Politicians have probably read some of the ideology they are pretending to represent, but no professional politician would admit that they are following a ideology. No scheme given, no situation to be trapped in.
Todays populist liberalism deserves even more to be described, even if it will be countered by the libs as "hatecrime", because critic which hits do hurt.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.