Liberalism can refer to many things: a philosophy, a disposition, an educational style—even a brand. But it is primarily thought of as a political doctrine originating in the seventeenth century, which values individual freedom and moral and formal equality for all (though liberals may disagree on the meaning of these terms). Liberalism has been imposed or voluntarily adopted in many parts of the globe, and is arguably the world’s dominant political doctrine today.
Liberalism has always had fierce critics. Initially those critics tended to be members of the nascent conservative movement, who took issue, among other things, with liberalism’s moral egalitarianism, its demand that the rising classes be empowered to participate in political decisions, and its tendency to undermine religious authority and hierarchies that were thought to be based on natural law. Examples of liberalism’s critics include John C. Calhoun, Robert Filmer (who defended the divine right of kings), Joseph de Maistre (who wrote a lacerating criticism of abstract egalitarian principles) and Friedrich Nietzsche (who called for a renewed aristocratic ethic to counteract what he saw as liberals’ promotion of mediocrity and tendency towards talk-shop).
But in the late eighteenth century, liberalism also started being attacked by members of the political left, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin. Leftist critics, then as now, contended that the liberal commitment to freedom and equality is at best superficial, and at worst a ploy to conceal the rise of new forms of non-egalitarian power and domination. Today, such critics also emphasise liberals’ tendency to justify imperialism, exploitation and militarism, often pointing to US policies under President Bill Clinton or Barak Obama as examples.
Domenico Losurdo’s Counter-History of Liberalism
One of the most persuasive contemporary left-wing critics of liberalism is Domenico Losurdo, an Italian Marxist who writes in the same vein as Antonio Gramsci and Antonio Negri. Losurdo first became known for his monumental of Nietzsche as an “aristocratic rebel,” who criticized liberal modernity from the right. Then, in 2005, Losurdo published Liberalism: A Counter-History, which he calls his attempt to bid “farewell to hagiography” in order to land us on the “firm ground of history” by exposing the morally ambiguous history of liberal theory and practice, focusing on its flaws and failings. However, Losurdo also acknowledges liberalism’s strong points and accomplishments.
Losurdo suggests that there are two kinds of liberalism.
One is the liberalism of such writers as John Locke, Herbert Spencer and Ludwig von Mises. According to Losurdo, many contemporary leftist thinkers see these men as racist and elitist, because they narrowly “equated ‘true liberty’ with untrammelled control by the master over his servants and his goods.” (And von Mises notoriously wrote, “There is no doubt fascism has temporarily saved Western civilization.”)
The other liberalism is the liberalism of abolitionists, suffragists, members of the American civil rights movement and anti-colonialists. These liberals, Losurdo writes, “sought to come to terms with the idea of liberty originally mobilized by servants, who refused to let themselves be assimilated to the master’s belongings and pursued emancipation through intervention by political power on their behalf, be it existing political power or that formed in the wake of revolution from below.”
Losurdo’s counter-history would have been more compelling if he had devoted more space to adjudicating the merits of this second kind of liberalism. That said, he is right that hagiographic takes on liberalism are a dime a dozen, and that exploring the dark sides of one’s preferred political doctrines tends to be enlightening. Losurdo appeals to Alexis de Tocqueville’s injunction that we look past the “surface glitter” of the familiar:
There is no reason not to apply the methodology so brilliantly indicated by de Tocqueville to the [liberal] movement and society of which he was an integral and influential part. Solely because he intends to draw attention to aspects that he believes have hitherto been largely or unjustly ignored, the author [Losurdo, writing of himself in the third person] refers to the book’s title as a “counter-history.” Otherwise, it is a history, whose subject matter alone remains to be specified: not liberal thought in its abstract purity, but liberalism, and hence the liberal movement and liberal society, in their concrete reality.
Liberal theorists—especially left-liberal thinkers like me—tend to offer defences of liberalism along one of two lines. Some of us argue that so-called liberals who fail in practice to respect liberty and equality are bad-faith actors using liberal doctrines as a smokescreen to justify socially harmful policies. We maintain that genuine liberals want nothing to do with such policies. For example, many of liberalism’s current gatekeepers reject the claims of some Republicans and other conservatives to be classical liberals.
Other liberal theorists describe the history of liberalism as part of an inevitable march of progress: they acknowledge the faults of past liberal policies but claim that liberal theory has evolved to correct for them. For instance, Will Kymlicka and others have pointed out that previous liberal societies failed to extend rights to women and ethnic and sexual minorities, and that most present-day liberal societies now do. Such theorists often claim that such developments demonstrate a capacity for self-correction that is perhaps unique to liberalism. Both lines of defence are legitimate, but both fall short of complete vindication: as Losurdo’s counter-history effectively demonstrates, liberalism’s problems were not created by a few bad actors. There are major authors and politicians whose genuinely liberal orientation has been well established, and yet who have supported some very ugly ideas. Locke’s support for the slave trade and the colonization of North America, the American founders’ imperialism and genocidal expansionism, and de Tocqueville’s occasional militarism are all shameful weights on the tradition.
Liberalism’s Dark Underbelly
Although Liberalism: A Counter-History has a thematic rather than chronological structure, it covers a healthy chunk of time: from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. It is disappointing that the book fails to provide an account of more recent developments, since the history of liberalism in the past 100 years is enormously rich and relevant: liberalism became more egalitarian; many left-liberals and social democrats were at the forefront of successful struggles to establish social welfare programs, expand economic and cultural rights, and include women and ethnic and sexual minorities in politics and social institutions; and liberals briefly united with communists in successfully fighting a titanic war against fascism and Nazism.
Instead, Losurdo focuses on liberalism’s classical and most insistently “possessive individualist” period, thus losing an opportunity to chart the relationship between liberalism and the political left, including the Marxist tradition of which he is a prominent advocate. However, the evidence that Losurdo presents against liberalism is damning. If nothing else, his book should prompt liberals to be far more reflective about the more vulgar parts of a tradition that many of them have too often idealised. The most damning sections explore liberalism’s historical relationship with chattel slavery and imperialist colonialism, and show supposedly liberal capitalists callously disregarding their workers’ abject poverty.
The chapters on chattel slavery detail the ways in which many early liberals—such as John Locke (1632–1704) and some of the late-eighteenth-century founders of the US—profited from slavery. While many civilizations have justified owning people as property, it was liberal democracies that developed the idea that victims of slavery were racially inferior—irrational, less culturally developed, lazy, and in need of enlightened masters. Scientific-sounding theories were recruited to give a pseudo-rational gloss to these policies. Some (though by no means all) American revolutionaries even hypocritically justified war against what they saw as British tyranny on the ground that their revolution would also defeat abolitionism and the government’s attempts to interfere with property rights. As John Adams put it, “We won’t be their Negroes!” Illegal immigrants to Texas even rebelled against Mexico in part to preserve chattel slavery against the burgeoning reform movement. This rank hypocrisy was movingly captured by Frederick Douglass, in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
The sections of Losurdo’s book that discuss liberal colonialism are just as damning. All imperialists have tried to justify aggressive expansion into other people’s countries as somehow benefitting of their intended subjects; liberal imperialism was no different. On Losurdo’s reading, American liberals often combined a notion that they were superior to the native peoples of the continent with the intellectually vague but millenarian conceit that it was their country’s destiny to expand from “sea to shining sea.” This fuzzy self-congratulation is belied by the same people’s repeated calls to massacre the original inhabitants of the land. For example, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, predicted that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct,” and Teddy Roosevelt said that the lives of nine out of ten natives weren’t worth anything.
Losurdo’s account of French liberal imperialism is briefer and less compelling, and largely limits itself to ruminations about de Tocqueville’s Orientalist justifications for the colonization and subjugation of Algeria (through brute force, if necessary). But he fittingly treats at greater length the British imperial system, which is the largest the world has ever known. He points out the irony that the British are, to this day, held up as defenders of individual and political liberty while historically having done more than any other nation to invade and dominate the world.
In several passages, Losurdo graphically describes the violence inflicted by some British imperialists upon their victims; including an especially creative policy in Jamaica called Derby’s dose, in which slaves were required to defecate into the mouth of an insubordinate, whose lips were then sewn shut for several hours. Anyone who reads this section should be immunised for life against trite pieties about the British empire as one of liberty, benign neglect or government with the lightest possible hand. Sadly, even progressive liberals like J. S. Mill, who were otherwise admirable, often found themselves defending imperialism: this is a stain on the liberal tradition that may never be fully removed.
In the conclusion to his book, Losurdo writes,
Liberalism’s merits are too significant and too evident for it to be necessary [to invent] … other, completely imaginary ones. Among [them] … is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it. If one starts out from such a presupposition, the tragedy of peoples subjected to slavery or semi-slavery, or deported, decimated and destroyed, becomes utterly inexplicable. This was a tragedy which, far from being impeded or prevented by the liberal world, developed in close connection with it.
Losurdo is too quick to dismiss the capacity for self-correction that characterizes liberalism and other nuanced political doctrines. True, there is no virtue in simply forgetting the past (which is the impulse of many reactionary thinkers), because past injustices may bear dark fruit in future generations. Some liberal apologists have responded to these injustices with the glib observation that things are better now—this ignores the legacy of violence that still weighs upon the present. On the other hand, it is all too easy to commit a genetic fallacy when criticizing liberalism, and assume that its genealogy determines its future. Sincere self-correction is the opposite of forgetting; it is a deliberate effort to acknowledge, rectify and compensate for the mistakes and failures of the past. Although liberalism’s critics are often right in pointing out its historical faults, they can sometimes be indifferent or even overly cynical when noting its accomplishments or its efforts to propose concrete solutions to our present woes. By contrast, those radicals whose thinking is more nuanced—such as Irving Howe in his classic essay, “Liberalism and Socialism: Articles of Conciliation” or the late great Charles Mills, who criticized “racial liberalism” but argued that a more radically egalitarian liberalism would still be just—have recognized the substantial value of liberals’ efforts to limit the arbitrary exercise of state power and ensure that certain legal rights are afforded to everyone .
Liberals have also pointed out that their critics’ proposed solutions to power imbalances tend to entail the massive expansion of government power, unchecked or plebiscitary forms of democracy, and the curtailment of individual rights. Though such proposals are presented as a cure for liberalism’s ills, they have often been worse than the disease. Communist regimes have been no less imperialist, violent and ideologically blinkered than liberal ones—and yet Losurdo is disturbingly soft on them, blaming their behaviour on pressure from western countries, or excusing it as a necessary evil in the struggle against capitalist domination—apologias that are no more compelling than those of some nineteenth-century American liberals who argued that maintaining slavery was necessary to keep the union together (until it fell apart 70 years after the constitution came into effect).
The task for leftist liberals and liberal socialists like me is to extract what is valuable in liberalism and discard what is elitist, racist and imperialist. As Losurdo implies, this will not be easy—liberalism has a lot of skeletons in its closet. But it also has many accomplishments and insights that it is vital to preserve and even extend. The early twenty-first century has seen the rise of overtly anti-liberal and post-liberal movements across the globe—movements that don’t even make a pretence of valuing human equality or freedom. Their proponents insist that liberalism has brought about social decadence and decay that can only be reversed by revanchist and counter-revolutionary insurrection and by concentrating power in the hands of openly illiberal authoritarians. Given these developments, while liberals and radicals need to acknowledge the black marks on their histories, they also need to work out what they have in common and what shared future they might construct. Securing freedom and equality remains a noble goal. It is time to achieve it for all, rather than just the few.