Liberalism: theory and practice

Issue: 135
Posted: 29 June 12

Marieke Mueller

Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso, 2011), £22

The Oxford English Dictionary defines liberalism as the “support for or advocacy of individual rights, civil liberties, and reform tending towards individual freedom, democracy, or social equality”. In his book Liberalism: A Counter-History Domenico Losurdo opposes the view that liberal philosophy from the 18th century onwards (represented by Locke and others) was part of a gradual transition towards political freedom and equality. Slavery, repression of the emerging working class, limits to political freedom and mass extermination of indigenous populations are not, as Losurdo shows, curious by-products of a general progress towards democracy but phenomena intrinsically bound up with the development of liberal ideas and with the reality of countries claiming to be “liberal”.

Throughout the book, Losurdo argues that there is an “entanglement of emancipation and dis-emancipation” inherent in liberalism (p391). He questions whether the established thinkers of liberalism, such as Calhoun, Locke, de Tocqueville, Sieyès and Montesquieu, can be called liberals at all. His answer tears apart the standard teachings of textbook philosophy. Locke was not only a shareholder in the slave trade but his writings more fundamentally legitimised the emerging chattel slavery at the time. Liberalism and racial slavery are the products of a “unique twin birth” (p35). Montesquieu, who comes closest to a refutation of slavery, does not oppose it on the grounds of human equality. Instead he argues the “uselessness of slavery” in Europe (p44), relegating slavery from the metropolis but justifying it in the colonies. Losurdo’s book does not simply condemn liberalism, but tries to work out its contradictions. Adam Smith for instance saw that “the freedom of the free was the cause of the great oppression of the slaves”, but proposed a despotic government as a solution.

This close analysis of a liberal ideology which goes hand in hand with slavery (and other limitations to equality and democracy) is vital for an understanding the history of slavery. But Losurdo is not only concerned with ideas. In his short methodological preface he declares his intention to write about liberal ideas and their expression in reality. But he often does more than that: rather than just seeing history as an expression of ideas, he often shows the dialectical interaction between ideas and history. He notes for example the important role played by the masses in the 1848 revolutions. Losurdo shows that it is the spectre of socialism that leads liberal thinkers to adopt a language of individualism and that provokes de Tocqueville to criticise the 1789 French Revolution.

Losurdo also emphasises the resistance of the oppressed, for instance the slave rebellion in Haiti, and the shock it caused the ruling classes in Europe and America. In reaction to the failure of the American and English liberal models, he argues, a radical strand of thought (eg Diderot) began to identify with the oppressed and revolution from below. It is this radical thought that was inherited later by Marx and Engels. Whether or not it is always useful to distinguish between liberalism and radicalism, Losurdo makes a very valuable contribution in describing how more radical thought emerges out of the contradictions of liberalism.

Losurdo asks whether 18th and 19th century England and America can be identified as liberal countries. He reveals the American Revolution as a movement for independence—and for the right to own slaves, expressed in the American Constitution. Subsequently, the American settlers adopted a racialised notion of slavery, while in England a spatial definition of slavery emerged, like Montesquieu’s, which relegated it to the colonies. At the same time, the court which ruled that England was a territory whose air was “too pure for a slave to breathe” (p48) expressed its own form of racism. The lack of political freedom and the effect of slavery even on whites in America, and the slave-like conditions of workers in England and Scotland, leads Losurdo to dismiss these countries as being liberal.

Losurdo defines the political system in America as a “master-race democracy”, a term defined as “democracy which applied exclusively to the master race” (p107). Because of the key role racism played also in the North, the term, being based on white supremacy, is also applied to those states. This exemplifies very well that democracy was available only to a very small minority in America, to the caste of whites. Losurdo insists that the division along race lines “was conducive to the development of relations of equality within the white community” (p107). The prevalent ideas of the community of the free whites may have led poor whites to identify with the ruling class. However, an analysis of class interest would have made it clear at this point that objectively the poor white shared a common interest with slaves and poor black people.

England after the Glorious Revolution is also termed a “master-race democracy”, on the basis that the category is not understood in a merely ethnic sense. It is opened up to the situation of indentured servants, the dehumanisation of wage-labourers, and the harsh sentencing of the poor. The merit of this analysis is that it shows the ways in which liberalism excludes great numbers of people from the enjoyment of its supposed values. From this point of view it is unproblematic that the analysis is not based on a theoretical differentiation between race and class. Losurdo demonstrates precisely the conflation of race and class in liberalism itself. But if we want to move on to think about the possibilities of self-emancipation of the various groups excluded from freedom, we are in need of additional tools that help us understand the difference between them.

At points the book would have benefited from a clearer definition of the term “liberalism”, and therefore the reason for the choice of authors discussed is not always obvious. Liberalism for instance includes Locke, but not Hobbes. Losurdo frequently references Burke in his analysis, a thinker who the defenders of liberalism would arguably exclude on account of his being a conservative. The choice would be perfectly justified if liberalism was treated as the ideology of the ruling class, or an element of it. But this is never spelt out. Instead, the term “liberalism” is sometimes used in a confusingly broad way, for instance when Losurdo disagrees with Marx (with whom he also has many agreements) on the definition of the revolutions from 1688 to 1848. Losurdo calls these “liberal revolutions”, rather than bourgeois ones. By blurring class and ideology the book at this point is too vague about the definition of its very subject matter.

But this does not detract greatly from the aim of the book: to show the contradictions
of liberalism and the way in which it inherently excludes great numbers of people from its own values, both in theory and in practice. Losurdo has produced a very useful book which brings together elements of the history of liberalism often presented as disconnected by bourgeois thought. He shows the close connection between the ideology justifying slavery, the racism of the Jim Crow laws and a racialised vision of the community of the free. Without fear of being provocative (“Roosevelt can thus be calmly approximated to Hitler”—p338),
he argues that the horrors of the 20th century were by no means an inexplicable exceptional event. The book is highly relevant beyond its immediate historical subject. It will not only be useful to anyone interested in liberal philosophy. It is also a significant contribution at a time of revolutions and “humanitarian” interventions pose again the questions of the so-called “democratic world” and the self-emancipation of the oppressed.