A Story of Liberalism, Illiberally Told

The bibliographies of few books cite more Liberty Fund publications than does Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History from the Glorious Revolution to the First World War. It cites works published by Liberty Fund of no fewer than eleven authors and these do not include Hayek, Locke, Macaulay, Mill or Tocqueville whose works in other editions are cited. .

Despite its focus, few accounts of the classical liberal tradition are more scathing or unrelenting in their criticism of it than Losurdo’s. By way of illustration, consider his treatment of John Calhoun, the mid-nineteenth century senator and statesman from South Carolina. The Italian Marxist philosophy professor begins his book by calling into question Calhoun’s defense of chattel slavery in the South. Very few today, of whatever political stripe, would concur with Calhoun that southern slavery was not only in the best interests of the slaves but also provided the South with foundations for freer and more stable political institutions than it otherwise could have enjoyed. Yet many might still wish to take issue with Losurdo’s contention that Calhoun’s support for slavery automatically disqualifies him from inclusion within the liberal canon, along with Locke who also defended the institution of slavery, or else it means, quoting Losurdo, that ‘we can no longer maintain the traditional… image of liberalism as the thought and volition of liberty.’

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.

Take slavery, for instance. We know John Locke defended the institution in a certain form. Was he necessarily misguided in doing so? Simply because we moderns do not and cannot not countenance the institution does not mean that Locke must necessarily have been wrong to suppose that the institution admitted of the moral justification that he gave it for the very specific and different imagined circumstances in which he argued it could be countenanced. Likewise, however deplorable were the conditions and treatment of plantation slaves, Calhoun was not necessarily altogether wrong that those of his day there still fared better than they would have had they or their ancestors not been brought to America as slaves and remained there as such. Equally, without it the political institutions of the South of his time might well have been less free and stable than they were.

A lack of historical imagination seriously flaws Losurdo’s book which largely consists of quotations from eminent classical liberals designed to reveal how illiberal so many of their opinions were, at least to contemporary ears. The purpose of this revelation is more than merely to show how muddled and confused the authors it considers were, or even how much the prisoners of their times. Rather its object is to show how inextricably bound up with oppression liberalism always was, the emancipation of those on behalf of whom it fought always having gone along with, and been predicated on, according to Losurdo, the de-emancipation of others whose deliberate exclusion from the charmed circle of the free was a condition on which those for whose entry to it liberalism fought were able to be admitted. As well as John Locke and John Calhoun, other canonical classical liberals whose views are subjected to such criticism by Losurdo include Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Benjamin Constant, and Ludwig von Mises.

An additional object of Losurdo’s history is to reveal the extent to which the eventual widening of the charmed circle of the free so as to incorporate one-time excluded groups (such as African American slaves, native American Indians, subjects of British colonial rule, and workers and servants in the metropolitan heartland of the West) was invariably owed more to the radical forces to which liberalism historically was always opposed than it did to it. As Losurdo puts these several contentions in his summing up at the end of his book:

[W]e… must bid farewell once and for all to the myth of the gradual, peaceful transition, on the basis of purely internal motivations, from liberalism to democracy… [N]ot only did the classics of the liberal tradition refer to democracy with coldness, hostility and sometimes frank contempt… the exclusion [of formerly excluded peoples and groups] w[as] not overcome painlessly, but through violent upheavals of a sometimes quite unprecedented violence. The abolition of slavery in… the United States [cost them] more victims than both world wars combined…  [Moreover] emancipation very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world.  The abolition of slavery in British colonies cannot be understood without the black revolution in San Domingo… viewed with horror… by the liberal world… [M]ost important[ly]… [a] tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation… distinguishes the individual stages in the process of overcoming the exclusion clauses characteristic of the liberal tradition. In the United States the disappearance of censitary discrimination, and affirmation of the principle pf political equality, were aided by the… containment and political and social neutralization of the “dangerous classes”, thanks to the expropriation and deportation of Indians… and the enslavement of blacks. In Europe extension of the suffrage in the nineteenth century proceeded in tandem with colonial expansion and the imposition of forced labor on people or “races” deemed barbarous or childlike…

Losurdo’s assessment of liberalism, however, is not unequivocally negative. In his estimate, it has displayed a commendably greater capacity to learn from its major rival, the radical political tradition to the left of it, than has that latter tradition shown in being able to learn several valuable lessons that Losurdo acknowledges liberalism has to teach it. He finally observes of liberalism: 

Demonstrating an extraordinary flexibility, it constantly sought to react and rise to the challenges of the time…Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater degree than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it… [a]bove all… the decisive problem of the limitation of power… In economics [furthermore] liberal thought has vigorously insisted on the need for competition… to develop social wealth… a further, major historical merit.

A sting, however, is contained in the tail of Losurdo’s concluding complimentary remarks about liberalism. Immediately after making them, he goes on:

 However, at this [economic] level too, there emerged… awful exclusion clauses… Far from being a site where all individuals freely meet as sellers and buyers… for centuries the liberal market was a site of exclusion, de-humanisation and even terror. In the past the ancestors of today’s black citizens were commodities…  And for centuries the market functioned as an instrument of terror: even more than the lash, what imposed total obedience on the slave was the threat of being sold… separately from other family members. For a long time, indentured white servants were also bought and sold… And in the name of the market, workers’ coalitions were repressed and economic and social rights ignored and denied… Is all this a definitively concluded chapter of history? … [H]as liberalism definitely left behind it the dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation… [or] is this dialectic still alive and well, thanks to the malleability peculiar to this current of thought?  

As well might be imagined, Losurdo’s book has become the toast of the left, happy by means of it once again, in their eyes at least, to be able to claim the moral high-ground over liberalism. The victory that Losurdo’s exposé of the dark side of liberalism allows them to claim, if that is what his book succeeds in accomplishing, is, however, a very hollow one indeed. This is because, on every count on which Losurdo finds fault with liberalism, such as its alleged racism and repressiveness, the track-record of its radical antagonist with which Losurdo and fellow members of the left  still clearly so heavily identify, has proved itself no less defective.

It is not simply that, as Losurdo concedes, the Marxist tradition has proved itself economically illiterate and insufficiently aware of the limitations of political power by comparison with the creative power of the market. Its most influential theoreticians and practitioners have proved themselves to be every bit as much racist, exclusionary and repressive as have those liberals whom Losurdo expressly or tacitly criticizes. A few selected quotations from Marx and Engels will suffice to bring home the point.

[These quotations have been selected from a larger set of equally revealing quotations of Marx and Engels contained in Leslie R. Page, Karl Marx and the Critical Examination of his Works (London: The Freedom Association, 1987)]

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.

Marx continued to harbor virulently anti-Semitic sentiments, writing in 1862 to Engels about their political rival, the German-Jewish socialist, Ferdinand Lassalle:

 The Jewish Nigger Lassalle… fortunately departs at the end of this week…. It is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and [curly] hair – descends from the Negroes who had joined Moses’ exodus from Egypt (assuming his mother or grandmother on the paternal side had not interbred with a nigger [in English]. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product.   

Marx and Engels were every bit as dismissive of the claims of indigenous populations of the Americas and of other peoples colonized by Europeans as were those liberals whom Losurdo takes to task for having been such. Thus, in 1848, Engels wrote

In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced in it… It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in future be placed under the tutelage of the United States.

Similarly in 1853, Marx observed in support of British imperial rule in India that:

Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history… The question, therefore is not whether the English had a right to conquer India but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton… The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilisation.

In that same year, Marx also remarked more generally about such forms of imperialism and the ethnic cleansing in which they sometimes resulted:

 Society is undergoing a silent revolution which must be submitted to… The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.

Marx also was no less keen a supporter of war than was de Tocqueville, writing in 1855:

Such is the redeeming feature of war; it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgement upon social organisations that have outlived their vitality. 

Perhaps, the slogan for which Marx and Engels were to become so famous would have more accurately reflected their outlook had it bid workers of the world to unite, unless they were Jews or belonged to other historically outmoded peoples best consigned to history’s dustbin. Losurdo makes no mention of these exclusion clauses, yet waxes lyrical in criticism about those he attributes to liberalism. One is entitled to wonder why.

So keen does Losurdo seem to find fault with liberalism for being exclusionary that he sometimes is led to make very hazardous claims. Thus, for example, at one point he takes de Tocqueville to task for having claimed in 1846 that the non-urban Algeria of his day to have been desert. In criticism of the claim, Losurdo remarks:

Like the lands inhabited or, rather, occupied without authorization by the redskins, Algeria was [according to de Tocqueville] a desert prior to the arrival of the French or ‘Christians’. A sort of Biblical aroma begins to make itself felt in connection with the landing in North Africa of a civilised people, who likewise seem invested with a providential mission.

The trouble with Losurdo’s suggestion here that de Tocqueville was being disingenuous in so considering rural Algeria is that this country was and remains largely all desert.

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.