Liberalism Broadly Defined: Worldview and Paradigm

I’ve been meaning to read Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History, a left-wing historical critique of “liberalism”. It was recommended to me and it looks interesting, but I can’t help questioning what is this “liberalism” that is being explored. In a review of the book (An Attack on Liberal Mythology by Donald A. Planey), I left a simple comment:

Why is Obama referred to as a liberal? Obama doesn’t identify as a liberal. According to Pew data, around half of liberals are Independents, not Democrats. Also, about a two thirds of Democrats aren’t liberals, instead evenly divided between moderates and conservatives.

I always wonder what people mean or think they mean when the speak of political labels. There is a lot of confusion.

In response, Donald A. Planey wrote that, “Losurdo (and myself) do not use the narrow North American definition of “liberal.” “Liberal” here is defined according to Enlightenment philosophy.”

I didn’t intend to get into an involved analysis, but below are the comments I left to elucidate my misgivings.

As I haven’t read the book, I’m forced to respond to reviews of the book (and interviews with the author I’ve read). So, take my commentary on that level. I’m certainly not meaning to dismiss the book as having any value, just pointing out that it is a particular viewpoint constrained by the purposes and biases of the author. Nothing wrong with that. The book interests me for the very reason the author doesn’t share my own purposes and biases.

 * * * *

I would argue there is no Enlightenment definition of “liberal” as a political label. Enlightenment thinkers didn’t identify themselves or their philosophies as “liberal”. That was a later interpretation by some people, but there isn’t even agreement about that interpretation of the Enlightenment. You are, of course, free to read liberalism into the philosophies of past thinkers.

I see this same problem with discussing liberalism today. All the time, politicians, pundits, and activists get labeled as “liberal” even when they don’t identify as such. The case you want to make will determine who you include or exclude, but too often this is seeking evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. If you aren’t a liberal and want to criticize liberals, then you will try to find people who have negative qualities or moral failings and pin the “liberal” label on them and deny that same label to people with positive qualities and moral successes. And if you are a liberal seeking to defend liberalism, you will do the opposite.

The problem we have here is that we entirely lack an objective definition of liberalism. There is no agreement, oftentimes even among liberals. Liberalism can mean almost anything to anyone. To Losurdo, it seems even conservatives are liberals.

* * * *

Ed Rooksby offers one of the better criticisms:

“As Pitts remarks, Losurdo tends to `string together passages from a disparate set of thinkers in order to construct “liberal” positions’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8) in favour of a range of brutal, racist, elitist and otherwise unpleasant practices, prejudices and beliefs. But Losurdo’s choices of passages and quotations often seem highly selective and, thus, not necessarily very representative of liberal thought generally. Losurdo’s modus operandi, quite frequently, is to present a snippet of writing from two or three theorists or essayists on a particular subject and to suggest or imply rather breezily that these are typical of liberal thought as a whole – but we are often given no very good reason to believe that they really are typical. All in all the reader is frequently left with the nagging suspicion that the narrative Losurdo presents is distorted by an over-riding intention to show liberalism in the worst possible light on any given issue. . . The clear implication is that Sieyès’ fantasy is in some way representative of broader liberal thinking at the time – but Losurdo provides no evidence that other liberals (let alone a significant number of them) would ever have countenanced such an idea.”

That is the first problem. A strong cases substantiated with evidence apparently isn’t made. Rooksby, in quoting Pitts, points out that the argument is based on cherrypicking. So, we don’t have any reason to believe that this is a representative portrayal of liberalism, much less a useful definition.

He continues with the problem of conflating liberals with conservatives:

“Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example.[2] The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well.”

This is a liberalism so broad that it subsumes conservatism. This means that conservatives simply become another variety of liberals. And the focus of this book seems to be mostly on this conservative variety of “liberals” while ignoring all other varieties of liberals. This is clarified in Rooksby’s analysis of the relationship between liberals and radicals:

“The problem we encounter in relation to Losurdo’s treatment of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is inverted when it comes to his presentation of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism – the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated. One of the problems with Losurdo’s argument in this respect is that the radical tradition, in his schema, seems to arrive out of nowhere as a more or less fully formed and distinct political outlook at the time of the French Revolution. But where have these radical ideas suddenly come from? What were the historical conditions of their emergence? Why did they emerge precisely at this point? They cannot simply have appeared spontaneously out of nothing. Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to regard radicalism as, precisely, a radicalised form of what already existed – didn’t radicalism involve, in other words, a radicalisation of liberal ideas? One can certainly trace, for example, a clear line of continuity between the `liberal’ beginnings of the revolution in France, driven largely from above by a wealthy social elite seeking to limit the power of the monarch, and the more radical Jacobin phase. We are not dealing with two hermetically sealed revolutionary processes here – an entirely liberal one and an entirely radical one with no relation between the two even though one happened to occur immediately after the other and involved many of the same participants. Clearly the radical phase of the revolution grew directly out of the `liberal’ phase. The clear point of transition between the two phases comes, as Losurdo rightly points out, with the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolutionary process. But this intervention is best explained in terms of the popular masses seeking directly to stake a claim in the new order of liberty and equality that had been declared earlier in the revolution. Essentially, the radical phase sought to realise the universalist principles that had been declared in the earlier period more fully and consistently. The relationship between the two phases of the French Revolution provides us, it seems to me, with a pretty good indication of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism more broadly. The two traditions are not sharply distinct from each other at all – radicalism emerges from within the liberal tradition and involves, furthermore, a radicalisation of liberal ideas and principles.”

There is a continuum between liberalism and radicalism. In fact, there are radical liberals and liberal radicals. Only the conservative variety of so-called “liberals” would likely lack radicalism to an absolute degree. And only the most right-wing of radicals would entirely lack liberal-mindedness and liberal values, principles, goals, etc. As Rooksby points out:

“This brings us to the central part of Losurdo’s argument – his view that liberalism is defined by its implicit logic of exclusion. If radicalism did emerge from liberalism then it must follow that there is something much more substantial to liberalism than a core logic of exclusion – there must be some coherent ideological and normative content over and above its tendency to exclude, to be radicalised.”

Returning to the cherrypicking, the opposite problem is what is conveniently left out:

“Another set of shortcomings in Losurdo’s book relates to absences and omissions. For one thing, several major figures in the history of liberal thought receive only minor walk on roles in the narrative or do not appear at all. Kant for example is surely a major figure in liberal philosophy. Yet he receives scant attention in this book. Perhaps the cursory attention he gets is related to the fact that Losurdo has to admit that (because of his condemnation of slavery and colonialism and his enthusiasm for the revolution in France), Kant `came close to radicalism’ (p. 178), which, given Kant’s indisputable importance within the liberal tradition, seems to throw Losurdo’s rather arbitrary distinction between radicals and liberals into confusion and also threatens to undermine the argument about the centrality within liberalism of commitment to exclusion. It is also rather strange that liberal economics is hardly mentioned at all. The history of liberal economic theory is a hugely important aspect of the history of the liberal tradition as a whole – it is surprising that it is largely ignored.

“In addition relatively recent developments within liberal political philosophy are left out of the picture altogether. There is a very brief discussion of 20th Century liberalism but Losurdo’s narrative does not extend beyond 1914 in any detail and does not extend beyond 1945 at all. This, needless to say, means that a great deal of liberal thought is ignored altogether.”

There is no correlation made to contemporary liberalism and definitions of liberalism, either in the US or Europe (or anywhere else). So, the contemporary relevance of the book is far from clear. Is it just an academic exercise and a historical analysis using an archaic and/or idiosyncratic definition? It appears Losurdo wants to imply something about liberalism today, but apparently he never makes the connection.

Jonathan Dresner, in a comment to the second part of this review, made a good point:

“The discussion of the radical vs. liberal enlightenment here suggests to me the possibility that the enlightenment’s multitudes may well include all three of the major strains of 19th century thought: radicalism, liberalism, and conservativism. Conservativism is usually portrayed as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but there’s a line through Hobbes and Rousseau to Burke….

“Anyway, the recent work on Spinoza, and the distinction between the radical and mainstream enlightenment seems to point in this direction:″

* * * *

Here is another equally good criticism:

The reviewer makes the same point about the continuity between radicals and liberals:

“The second difficulty concerned the distinction that Losurdo wished to draw between radicals and liberals, which is not always a stable boundary – for example, William Lloyd Garrison took liberalism to its most radical conclusions in opposition to racial slavery, the colonization of Indian land, and the oppression of women, but he by no means departed from liberalism (indeed, he refused the term ‘wage slavery’, supported capitalist ‘free labour’ and tended to be suspicious of unionism).”

This goes back to the close relationship, during the early modern revolutions, between what today we’d call liberals and radicals: Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Godwin, Wallstonecraft, etc. Thomas Paine is one clear example of someone who bridged “liberalism” and “radicalism”. I would argue that Paine is the strongest ancestor of both the liberal and radical traditions in US politics. Those intertwining traditions go back to the Enlightenment era, and so I don’t know what this Englightenment definition of “liberalism” you speak of.

The other criticism made connects the issue of radicalism with the issue of conservatism:

“The third, related issue arose over the question of what, or who, counts as a liberal. Losurdo argues the case in his opening chapter for seeing the pro-slavery statesman John Calhoun as a liberal. Robin Blackburn disputed this, arguing that it involved far too expansive a definition of liberalism – Calhoun, he said, is a conservative. Blackburn’s concern was that Losurdo was risking a sectarian position, failing to acknowledge and that this wasn’t resolved by cordoning off some liberals as ‘radicals’. . . . Part of the problem here is that conservatism in its modern sense takes its cue from liberalism. Burke drew from Smith, almost all US conservatives draw from Locke, and modern conservatives are almost all influenced by classical liberalism. So, if Calhoun himself based his arguments on liberal precepts, which he certainly did, does this mean he is a liberal? There is also a deeper theoretical issue when discussing people like Calhoun. Antebellum slavery, some would argue, was a non-capitalist formation. That’s a core part of Charles Post’s argument in The American Road to Capitalism, written from a ‘political marxist’ perspective: that the US before the civil war was based on a combination of different modes of production – slavery, petty commodity production, mercantile capital, etc. The interaction between these different productive forms drove the expansionism of both north and south, eventually leading to Civil War.”

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese make a very detailed argument for a pre-capitalist South:

These authors were both radicals, she a feminist and he a Marxist. I gained a similar insight about the South from Joe Bageant who also comes from a Marxist background.

In Rainbow Pie, Bageant wrote about his childhood town in Appalachia, pointing out how it was a moneyless society based on subsistence farming, bartering and store tabs. Bageant was born long after the Civil War. That shows that the pre-capitalist economy survived in the rural South well into the 20th century.

The fact that capitalism took so long to take hold in the South is evidence for liberalism also not taking hold quickly there. It’s not to say there weren’t elements of capitalism and liberalism that had been planted in the South, but the point is that it would take centuries for them to more fully grow. Also, consider the fact that liberalism never was a single ideology or movement at any point in history. It has many origins and took many separate paths. This is most clearly seen in the diversity of American society going back to the Enlightenment era:

The above reviewer continues with his argument about a pre-capitalist South and further argues that it was precisely anti-capitalist, a point also made by the Genovese book:

“John Ashworth’s classic two-volume marxist history, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, makes the argument that southern political thought was largely pre-capitalist, drawing on classical republican ideologies because they happened to be conducive to the preservation of slave relations. Indeed, he maintains, the Democratic Party when it first emerged was anticapitalist – ‘Jacksonian Democracy’, based centrally on the valorisation of the white, freeholding farmer, could challenge the power of the banks and commerce in the name of agrarian interests while also being profoundly opposed to strong state intervention in the economy. So, was John Calhoun a liberal, because of his strong individualism and hostility to the over-concentration of central authority, or did liberalism merely provide part of the vocabulary for the defence of conservative interests?”

It’s obviously complex. American culture and politics is a mishmash.

He then brings up Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, specifically Robin’s view that Calhoun is a conservative. By the way, that book is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years and presents a very unique argument with a lot of explanatory power. As the reviewer says of Robin’s analysis:

“But what does being a conservative entail, then? The image of conservatism as anti-modern, traditionalist, evincing a preference for the familiar and for gradual evolution, is one that he, like Ted Honderich, C B Macpherson and others before him, disputes. The original conservatives – Hobbes, Burke, Maistre – are contemptuous of tradition, largely because of its inability to meet the challenge of revolution. What they are conserving is not a traditional order (as mentioned, Burke was already a free market capitalist), but hierarchy, dominance, unfreedom: they are reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries. To be effective counter-revolutionaries, conservatives must incorporate the ideas and tactics of the enemy. They must speak in the language of the people, “make privilege popular”, “transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses”.”

I have found this argument compelling in many ways. Otherwise, it is impossible to make sense of conservatism. Robin has the insight to look past the rhetoric of conservatives, sometimes sounding traditionalist and sometimes sounding classically liberal, and instead look to their behavior and policies. He summarizes Robin’s explanation of conservatism:

“Conservatism is thus not distinguished by its ideas which, with the enormous exception of race, it largely borrows from elsewhere, nor by its tactics, but by its praxis.”

And gives the details for why Calhoun was a conservative:

“It would follow that it is not Calhoun’s republican, pre-capitalist ‘states rights’ ideology that makes him a conservative, any more than his defence of private property makes him a liberal. It is his attempt to arouse the South in response to the abolitionist danger, his attempt to conserve hierarchy against mass democracy, that makes him a conservative.”

He then concludes with why liberalism is different than this:

“Liberals, you may say, have also been known to defend hierarchy and racial supremacy. This is true, but liberalism does not pivot on the defence of hierarchies and domination; that is precisely why it devises ‘exclusion clauses’. Indeed, it is because of liberalism’s much vaunted commitment to humanitarian and egalitarian values that ‘the liberal defence of murder’ is a hypocritical ideology, riven with tensions that aren’t usually present in the rightist equivalent.”

I’m not entirely sure if I agree with all of Robin’s theory. I could be persuaded toward the view that conservatives are just another variety of liberals in that we all live in a liberal society. I’ve pointed out that there are indeed conservative(-minded) liberals. Liberals are prone to conservatism which creates a lot of confusion,

Distinct ideologies (and the distinct labels that go with them) only clearly exist in theory, not in human psychology and behavior.

If liberalism is to be broadened in the sense of the Enlightenment to include conservatism, then it should also include much of the radicalism that was mixed up with and/or allied with liberalism. In a sense, all post-Enlightenment ideologies are “liberal” in that they use and define themselves according to the liberal worldview that became dominant then. But obviously this “liberalism” that spans from conservatism to radicalism has little to do with what most people, most especially most liberals, mean by liberalism.

Also, I keep wondering about proletariat liberals. The American Revolution wasn’t just pushed by the elite. It actually originated among the lower classes, and these lower classes were often more interested in liberal values than were the elites. Many of these lower class revolutionaries were fighting for democracy and more freedom in the market, two things the elites tended to be wary about. If not for this push from below, the American Revolution probably never would have happened. So, liberalism is obviously something more than a bourgeois phenomenon.

If liberalism spans from conservative to liberal and from bourgeois to proletariat, then we have a truly broad definition going on here. Basically, we are simply saying liberalism can include almost anything. According to the dictionary definition, to be liberal means to be generous; but this is an extremely generous definition. It’s interesting to think about. Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.

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23 Responses

  1. I’ve been rethinking my opinions lately.

    There are conservative(-minded) liberals. There are also liberals in general who often, under duress, act identical to conservatives. There are people identifying as conservatives who hold liberal positions across the board (as shown in Pew data)… liberal conservatives or just confused liberals?

    There are reactionary conservatives such as neocons who once were progressives and such as liberal reformers like Burke who, in response to the threat of revolution, became the staunchest defenders of empire. Are these really reactionary conservatives or liberals in reactionary mode?

    Is there anything distinct that can be called ‘conservative’? Or is conservatism truly just a sub-category of liberalism? Is everything a sub-category of liberalism in this post-Enlightenment age? Is there any fundamental difference between a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative? What do these labels mean, if anything?

    My instinct is to defend liberalism, but I have to first figure out what it is and what it isn’t. Is this a fool’s errand? Does it matter?

    There is no point in defending or criticizing when we don’t even know what we’re talking about. If we don’t know that we’re talking about something real and are clear about what it is, then how do we know if we agree or disagree with it?

    How can I, for example, ascertain if what Losurdo says makes any sense and if what I say makes any sense? Where is the objective measure when it comes to ideologies, movements, and labels? Is there anything consistent here that exists with continuity across the centuries?

    I ask these questions seriously.

    • Ultimately one needs to clarify the liberal concepts rather than those who have flown the banner of liberalism. Let’s face it John Locke is the place to start with the exemplification of Liberalism as ideology. From there it goes all over the place, is modified, revised, interpreted, etc. by the enlightenment philosophes who were them selves from one extreme (Voltaire – enlightened monarchist early on, then radical, the returns to the masonic leagues at the end of life), to the radicals, moderates, and even those like the Committee during 91- 93 who were following Rousseau as Prince of Virtue, etc.

      Historians will never settle the issue. Liberalism, like conservative, and even in our time: neoliberal vs. neoreactionary, etc. Are conceptual prisons built not by the ideologists themselves, but by their enemies to label and pin prick them into submission. These historians are usually not after the truth but after a rewrite of history. One would be better just to leave history and enter the trap of political philosophy straight out, then one will no longer delude oneself that there is any thing below the text hidden in the contours of material pasts that could suddenly be fixed or pegged to the donkey’s tail of history concerning such concepts.

      It’s a beggars grab bag of tricks. Open the bag, reach in, pull out the boing prize.

      Yet, a good historian can actually dip below this and bring back the nuggets by framing the questions and the events as actions evolving out of each other in conflict. That’s real history. I, too, started reading this particular history and realized that it would not present the truth of history, because that was not its purpose. Its purpose was to expose an ideology and it used all the ammo it could to do it, and left the unseemly aspects out of doors. So it will not hold up as history, it is pure exploitative ideological expose rather than truth Losurdo was after. Too bad.

      • I started reading the book just tonight, but I haven’t gotten very far yet. I’m not sure it is where I want to focus my attention right now. I’d probably rather finish reading several books I have on early Roman and European history. But I am curious to read a bit of it to feel out for myself where Losurdo is coming from.

        I’m going Into this book with the realization that I’ll disagree with much of it. Even so, I’d like to better understand what Losurdo means by “liberalism”. Also, my interest is in his historical approach. Corey Robin took a historical approach and I enjoyed his book, even as I have some doubts about the grand theory.

        I’m glad you brought up Locke. That was part of my reason to finally read this book. I know someone who has already read it. He mentioned in passing that Losurdo discusses how Locke’s rhetoric has roots in, as I recall, the Glorious Revolution. I hadn’t come across that suggeston before and I particularlywanted to read that section of the book, as soon as I figure out where it is.

        By the way, have you read any of Jonathan Israel’s books? I like his view of the radical Enlightenment. He sees Spinoza, more than Locke, as the origin of Enlightenment thought. I’d be impresed if Losurdo discussed Israel’s work or even just mentioned Spinoza, but I doubt he will.

        Depending on what one considers the starting point of liberalism, it would change the entire perspective one has on liberalism.

        • Yea, for Israel monism, atheism, and political radicalism is the fruit of Spinoza, as in our time for Hardt and Negri among others…

          About to get his latest book on the French Revolution… should be great as well. I’ve always felt the revolution took a wrong turn with the Committee and then it became coopted by the counter-enlightenment gang of Rousseaueans who produced the purges, terror, etc. Sad…

          • I just did a search in Losurdo’s book.

            He doesn’t mention Spinoza or Jonathan Israel. He only barely mentions Paine a few times and never discusses Paine’s radicalism or Paine’s strong criticism of Burke, Paine having been in the radical tradition of Spinoza rather than in the moderate/reactionary tradition of Locke. And he doesn’t mention other radical liberal criticisms of Burke such as the feminist Wallstonecraft, despite feminism being one of the major elements of modern liberalism.

            I don’t make these criticisms to simply dismiss Losurdo’s book. I point out these ommissions to point out his argument could possibly have been stronger and more interesting.

            He simultaneously is broadbrushing liberalism and excluding large segments of liberalism. I could take his argument on its own merits more easily if he had taken on the hard task of accounting for these radical liberals, especially as these radical liberals have had in many ways more long-term impact than their non-radical contemporaries. Today, we are ever increasingly living in Paine’s vision of society, not Burke’s. As for Burke’s defense of monarchy, aristocracy, and theocracy, it seems rather quaint now even to conservatives. If Burke was some kind of liberal, his vision of liberalism seems safely dead at this point.

            What this means is that the reader is required, if he so desires, to try to make sense of Losurdo’s argument in this larger context. But Losurdo should have done this work himself or at least offered a reason for why he chose to ommit what he did, why he chose to narrow his focus in such a constrained fashion. Leaving it unexplained creates suspicions in the reader’s mind. What is left out always tells you more about an author’s agenda than what is included.

            I plan on getting Israel’s newest book. It is being made available starting tomorrow. I should be able to get it on my kindle later tonight, as I work late nights. I was reading a lot about the French Revolution lately and so I was excited when I saw Israel’s book was coming out.

            • As for Liberalism I think John Gray the ex Thacherite probably does better than anyone to cover all aspects of liberalism in about 5 volumes across so many years. He delves into the whole history from beginning to end.

          • I did some more searches for names and other terms. In Losurdo’s book, I didn’t find any of the following (in no particular order):

            John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, Pragmatism, Horace Greeley, Robert Owen (or his sons), William Penn, Roger Williams, Samuel de Champlain, French Huguenots, German Pietists, English Civil War, Roundheads, Cavaliers, John Dickinson, Benjamin Rush, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Mercy Otis Warren, Elihu Palmer, Richard Price, Joel Barlow, Alexandre Dumans, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth.

            I did find some references to:

            Abraham Lincoln, Quakers, Puritans, Baptists, Methodists, (a ton on) the Glorious Revolution, (one on) Oliver Wendell Holmes, (unsurprisingly, many on) Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, (also, many) on Benjamin Constant.

            I was trying to see a pattern in what was included and omitted. One obvious is that he tends to focus on very well-known and mainstream names. He ignores almost completely any radical liberals and radicals with liberal bents. Even when he mentions a radical like Thomas Paine, he ignores his radical side. He also ignored Benjamin Franklin’s abolitionism. The Owen family contributed massively to what has become American liberalism, especially in politics. Lincoln was mentioned quite a bit, but why not the Owen family and Horace Greeley who knew Lincoln well? The omission of Pragmatism and its proponents seems strange.

            Also, in mentioning groups like the Quakers, he acknowledges their abolitionism, but doesn’t seem to connect it to the liberal tradition, even though Quakers were a major influence on American liberalism. Rather, his purpose in including liberals seems to have been to contrast them to those he considers liberals, unless I was misunderstanding what I gleamed.

            It would have been nice to have seen discussion of German Pietists and French Huguenots, as they influence American liberalism and connected it to European liberal traditions. All of these, along with the Quakers, were closely aligned with the religious dissenting tradition behind the English Civil War. And, with the Glorious Revolution mentioned, how could the English Civil War be entirely ignored? I’m sure that makes Burke happy, as he’d have been happy to have the English Civil War expunged from English history.

            The early colonial influences on liberalism were left out almost completely. I would have been impressed if he had discussed Champlain, Williams, and Penn. That is the foundation of North American liberalism.

            I’m still left with not quite knowing what, according to Losurdo, is “liberalism”. He never gives a standard for what makes someone liberal or not. Or why he focuses on certain aspects of individuals while ignoring their other sides. His approach seems to be very impressionistic. This makes it very challenging. I have to first figure out what he is precisely arguing about before I can figure out in what ways and to what degrees I may or may not agree.

            On a side note, I just started reading Jonathan Israel’s new book on the French Revolution. Losurdo does cover the French Revolution quite a bit. That might be a good point of comparison.

          • I thought of some other historical figures and terms to look up. Also, not found in the book are:

            Emerson, Thoreau, Ghandi, MLK, Civil Rights Movement, Transcendentalism, Romanticism, Populism

            I’ve been skimming around the book. I’m slowly getting a better sense of what Losurdo means by “liberalism”. In his view, liberalism is synonymous with individualism. He believes that many moderate socialists mistake themselves as liberals. And he distinguishes radicalism from both liberalism and socialism. Or that is my impression so far, although I’m still trying to piece together what I’ve read.

            His own politics play into how he uses these words and the criticisms he makes:



          • There was something I meant to say. Horace Greeley is an interesting angle. It would have particularly added to a left-wing accounting of liberalism.

            Greeley was important at the time and was a political ally of Lincoln. I haven’t yet looked closely at what Losurdo has written about Lincoln, but I’ll have to pay attention to who he mentions in relation to him. Lincoln ran in social circles that included a great diversity of people, specifically having close ties to radicals.

            Most of Marx’s writings were published in Greeley’s Republican newspaper, which Lincoln regularly read. And Marx wrote a letter to Lincoln. These are the type of things you’d think a left-winger would be aware of and would mention.

            The Republican Party partly emerged out of the Free Soil movement. In Losurdo’s terms, the party included people who were liberals, socialists, and radicals. This is why these people were often referred to as the Red Republicans. Losurdo, however, doesn’t mention either Free soil or Radical Republicanism.

            I realize, as an Italian, that Losurdo might not be very familiar with US politics and history. I get the sense that, when he speaks of “liberals”, he is almost entirely excluding the American liberal tradition. He is instead focusing on the classical liberals, which in the US corresponds mostly to conservatives.

            So, his criticisms of “liberalism” are what most of us, at least in the US, mean by modern conservatism. American liberals, on the other hand, are almost entirely what he calls socialists. As for radical liberals, I suspect he doesn’t believe they exist; you’re either a liberal or a radical, the divide between them maybe being absolute. In this categorization system, Americans such as MLK would likely be designated as radicals or else as socialists whereas the opponents and critics of MLK would more likely be designated liberals.

            As an American, his usage seems very idiosyncratic. But maybe these are common ways of labeling in Italy. Or maybe I’m just confused and don’t get what he is really meaning. I’m not feeling inspired to read his book thoroughly at the moment, but I’ll definitely have to get back to it when I’m more in the mood.

            • Yea, being a Continental thinker I’d assume he wasn’t trying to cover in full the history of liberal humanist thought collective, but was instead using a bare minimum of known or key figures within liberalism for exemplum of his argument. If you were expecting a full history and critique from him then you would be wrong. Obviously we could make the case that he eliminated too many from his critique that from our own reading should have been brought in, but that’s a fairly lame critique of his work and one that says nothing about what he was doing in his critique to begin with.

              Who really cares about a full history of liberal humanist thought? That was not the point of his book.

              • Most of what I’ve written so far isn’t primarily a criticism. I’ve been more simply trying to understand where he is coming from, but he doesn’t make it easy for an American audience.

                He doesn’t even use the term classical liberal which would have given me a clue. Also, I don’t normally associate American liberals as socialists, which is usually only an accusation you hear from right-wingers, not left-wingers. It would have been easier if he had defined his terms right from the start.

                By the way, do most continental political philosophers consider (many or all) American liberals as socialists? If so, I didn’t know that.

                • As you probably guessed, most Continental philosophers don’t think about Americans one way or the other. Which is sad, of course. Continental philosophy has always been a little parochial to me. That’s why such outer limit philosophers as the Speculative Realists have such appeal because they are bucking that whole ingrown tradition.

  2. A thought occurred to me about how this book is historically framed.

    Losurdo supposedly ends his analysis in the early 20th century. That was the precise era of the ascendancy of liberal society when the rhetoric of liberalism fully took hold, at least in the US. Back then, even conervatives publicly paised liberalism, although they probably didn’t do so in private while among other conservatives.

    In the early 20th cenury US, both liberals and conservatives largely embraced progressivism. The KKK supported Abolition and pushed for universal public education. I suppose, according to Losurdo’s analysis, the KKK therefore were a bunch of liberals. I don’t find that helpful.

    What I like about Corey Robin’s view is that he makes sense of why conservatives would at times want to embrace liberal (or even left-wing) rhetoric and tactics. Conservatives arose contemporaneous with liberalism and liberal society, but that doesn’t make them liberals.

    It seems to me that we have o be very careful in how we use labels. Our language can offer clarity or it can confuse us further. We are already confused enough as is.

  3. I was reading some more of the beginning section. The issue of Calhoun’s ideology comes up and it was a major focus of many reviewers. I realized there is a kind of nuance that would have helped Lusardo to make important distinctions he overlooks.

    David Hackett Fischer has written a number of great books about American culture, politics and history.

    One of his books enitrely focuses on the opposite visions of freedom and liberty, a distinction similar to that between positive and negative freedom, freedom to and freedom from. Calhoun, like most Amerian conservatives, was promoting a vision of liberty. But most American liberals advocate freedom.

    Fischer wrote another book comparing American and New Zealand. In it, he contrasted freedom and fairness. More than anything, fairness distinguishes itself as truly liberal because there is nothing conservatives hate more. Some conservatives will use the liberal rhetoric of freedom, but it is a rare conservative who will use the rhetoric of fairness.

    Certainly, Calhoun wouldn’t speak of fairness in positive light. And that is precisely what makes Calhoun a conservative.

    Nonetheless, liberty, freedom, and fairness were ideas that began to be more clearly formulated during the Enlightenment. But it was fairness where liberalism overlapped most strongly with radicalism. It is fairness that for certain not consevative and so shows liberalism as a tradition distinct from conservatism. Any criticisms made toward the failure of the rhetoric of fairness would equally apply to both liberalism and radicalism, including Losurdo’s own leftism.

    If Losurdo’s analysis wasn’t equal to the task, it likely was because he didn’t have the necessary analytical tools. These other authors would have given him additional conceptual frameworks to suss out important differences and thus avoid broadbrushing. However, if his purpose was to criticize the Enlightenment project more generally, he should have made that more clear.

    These are just some tentative thoughts.

  4. I came across the perfect example from Losurdo’s book.

    He does mention Paine early on. And hopefuly he’ll have more to say of Paine in greater detail later in the book.

    Losurdo was discussing Andew Fletcher who “was a ‘champion of liberty’ and, at the same time, ‘a champion of slavery’.” Losurdo, at the end of the same paragraph, writes that,

    “Expressing positions rather similar to Fletcher’s was his contemporary and fellow countryman James Burgh, who also enjoyed the respect of republican circles a la Jefferson, and was mentioned favourably by Thomas Paine in the most celebrated opuscle of the American Revolution (Common Sense).”

    It’s too bad Losurdo didn’t think through his own examples more carefully. Paine, if we are to use modern labels, was as muc a left-wing radical as he was a liberal (see his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”). If this guilt by association damns all of liberalism, why the double standard of withholding this judgement from left-wing radicalism?

    Anyway, I don’t have evidence that Paine knew Fletcher was a defender of slavery, but I suppose it was likely. If so, it would be a failure of Paine’s character and of human nature in general. However, it doesn’t directly say anything about Paine’s politics, whether his liberalism or left-wing radicalism.

    As far as guilt by association goes, even greater radicals than Paine such as Godwin regularly associated with slaveholders. That was the social reality at the time. Revolutionary politics often makes strange bedfellows. But I don’t see that Losurdo’s argument follows from this basic fact, considering what he chooses to ignore.

    So, what is the real point being made? Or what is the real point that should be made?

  5. Despite disagreements I might have with Losurdo, I’m glad he wrote this book.

    First, it forces me to think out why I disagree. This clarifies my own understanding. More importantly, it forces a discussion to happen about liberalism, a favorite topic of mine. This is a discussion we need to be having because it goes to the heart of our society. liberals should take this as an opportunity to improve their arguments and to also take seriously the criticisms.

    Second, I’ve been of the opinion that liberals and left-wingers need each other. It can be easy for liberals to forgt this as left-wingers are so often effectively silenced in our society. We need to listen to these outside perspectives that shake up the way we think, even if in the end we still disagree.

    Losurdo has offered food for thought.

    This isn’t so much about speculating about what liberalism is, but moreso what we want liberalism to be. It’s a fact that liberalism hasn’t always lived up to its own ideals. This is true of left-wing radicalism as well, but that doesn’t lessen the responsibility laid at the feet of liberals. We do need a new and improved liberalism or a better and more effective way to implement the liberalism we have.

    As a liberal, I’m one of the first to criticize the failings, inadequacies, and weaknesses of the liberal movement. I truly hope this isn’t the best that liberalism has to offer. Losurdo’s book should be taken as a challenge and a provocation.

    • Losurdo offers an alternative perspective. There are positives and negatives to this.

      Let me start with the negatives.

      Losurdo is both not a liberal and not an American. I have my doubts about how well he understands either. I have even greater doubts about his grasp of American history. He is looking in as outsider. He is seeing it all from a distance. Unsurprisingly, he misses some of the details and nuance that would help him understand someone like Calhoun.

      He judges Calhoun as a liberal because some of the rhetoric sounds liberal. Yet at the same time he tells us we shouldn’t take liberal rhetoric at face value. So, why should we take Calhoun’s rhetoric at face value. That is precisely what Corey Robin warns about. If you take conservative rhetoric at face value, it is impossible to make distinctions between liberals and conservatives for the latter has been in a constant process of adopting and adapting to liberal rhetoric.

      What matters isn’t the rhetoric, but what purpose it serves. What matters isn’t what people say, but what they do. Proof is in the pudding.

      On the positive side, as a non-American and a non-liberal, Losurdo is bringing an entirely different perspective to the table, that is different from what we normally get here in the US. As an American liberal, I welcome this. It forces me to see the world through different eyes. In disagreeing with him, I have to articulate why I disagree with him and I have to try to understand why he disagrees with people like me.

      The outsider perspective sees things in entirely different contexts.

      I often suspect there is a lot less difference between mainstream liberalism and mainstream conservatism than most people would like to believe. If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many confusion. It’s because liberals so easily shift toward conservatism and conservatives toward liberalism that proves there is great overlap. When you get past the rhetoric on both sides, what you find is a liminal space where things blend into one another.

      I would, however, challenge Losurdo in a similar fashion. There is also a vast liminal space between liberalism and left-wing radicalism. It’s just as easy to make a liberal into a conservative as it is to make a liberal into a radical left-winger, when the conditions are right. Ideological labels say little about human nature, about what fundamentally motivates people. All ideologies fail on this account for the failure arises from the same place ideologies arise, from within the human psyche.

      I welcome radical left-wigners such as Losurdo to the debate. And I invite them to take the debate to the next level.

  6. In case anyone is interested, here is the discussion mentioned by one of the reviewers. It is about whether slavery was capitalist or non-/pre-capitalist.

  7. In his book “Liberalism: A Counter-History”, Domenico Losurdo’s (classical) ‘liberalism’, along with being synonymous with individualism, is also (p. 244), “Synonymous with ‘aristocratic’ in Burke, ‘liberal’ was now synonymous with ‘conservative’ (and tutelary).” It took him more than a couple hundred pages to make this statement.

    Also, this ‘liberalism’ is mixed up with or built on the exclusionary principle. It isn’t defined by liberal-mindedness, if anything oposite/oppositional to it, but not always or with perfect consistency. Liberalism is mired in exclusion, even as its rhetoric speaks otherwise and some liberals take that rhetoric seriously to varying degrees. However, the moment inclusion (as equality and fairness) actually becomes dominant Losurdo apparently would no longer designate it as ‘liberal’.

    So, there ya go. I finally got that cleared up. In an American edition of this book, the title should have been translated as “Conservatism: A Counter-History”. But at least he does finally getting around to stating it more directly. As Losurdo is an Italian left-winger, maybe this would be understood by his fellow Italian left-wingers without needing to be overtly stated. I suppose his targeted audience wasn’t necessarily Americans.

    Considering Losurdo’s definition of ‘liberalism’ as individualistic ‘conservatism’, what would he call the American fundamentalists/evangelicals who are often more collectivist-oriented but who also identify as ‘conservative’? I’m particularly thinking of the strong right-wing strain in populism that, in the early 20th century, led the KKK and Mormons to support Progressivism (universal public education, Prohibition, etc).

    Anyway, I now realize that the ‘liberals’ I admire would be labeled by Losurdo as either ‘socialists’ or ‘radicals’. What some might call ‘radical liberals’ or ‘liberal radicals’ Losurdo calls just plain ‘radicals’. And, to clarify further, what many (especially on the American right) might call ‘radicals’ Losurdo would call ‘socialists’.

    That is interesting. I guess I’m fine with that, as far as it goes. Labels are less important to me than what they represent.

    However, I may have been less interested in the book if I knew it was about conservatism. I am interested in conservatism as well, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting to find. Almost my entire curiosity was about figuring what was this ‘liberalism’. I feel a bit let down now that I know it is just ‘conservatism’.

    Still, it is interesting. I’ve written about the sub-category of conservative(-minded) liberals who would be closer to and maybe identical to Losurdo’s liberals. I have wondered if there might not be much, if any, difference between conservative(-minded) liberals and liberal(-minded) conservatives.

    I have enjoyed reading this book, albeit frustrating at times. It has required me to see these labels in a new context and rethink my own understandings, my own cultural biases and assumptions.

    This brings me back to an old debate I’ve had about whether ‘liberalism’ is even a useful term these days. There just is too much confusion and too much diversity of views. Depending on who you ask, ‘liberalism’ can mean everything from ‘conservatism’ to ‘socialism’ and ‘radicalism’. I take this as signifying how important liberalism is to modern society. Almost everyone, one way or another, is either seeking to claim or deny liberalism.

  8. I thought of a way to view Losurdo’s book.

    It isn’t so much about the history of liberalism itself. And so calling it a counter-history might be less than accurate or helpful. It seems to me that the author isn’t interested in the actual full history of liberalism or even a full revision of that history.

    What the book most fundamentally presents is a counter-argument for the definition of liberalism. In the service of this goal, the author selectively and narrowly uses historical figures and anecdotes.

    As far as I can tell: He takes his definition of ‘liberalism’ as an assumption, an unstated premise. He doesn’t, for the most part, offer alternative definitions or consider alternative arguments. He doesn’t even summarize the histories that he claims to be countering. Or such is what I’ve found so far in my reading of his book.

    Ever since the French Revolution, there has been a struggle over the meaning of that revolution and revolution in general. This has included both a struggle over the Enlightenment and, hence, a struggle over the foundation of liberalism. Losurdo, in many basic ways, seems to side with the counter-Enlightenment and the counter-revolution. Maybe this is what gives a conservative bent to his, and many mainstream continental philosophers’, definition of liberalism.

    From the other side of the argument, take Jonathan Israel’s most recent book on the French Revolution.

    Israel argues for what he calls the radical Enlightenment. The difference is that he presents the history of the actual debate itself, the debate over who gets to define what. His premises, as such, seem more overtly stated; and so it is easier to quickly grasp where he is coming from. But that isn’t to say that Israel focuses directly and primarily on liberalism itself.

    I’d love to see a debate between Losurdo and Israel, to find out upon what they agree and disagree.

    • Israel’s book is interesting. He remains close to historical examples and refuses to generalize too much. He never speaks of some broad notion of liberalism. Instead, he always uses “liberal” as a qualification of or qualified by another word:

      “centrist liberals”
      “liberal monarchists”
      “liberal-minded, sophisticated men”
      “liberal theorists and journalists”

      He never once theorizes about liberalism over all. This makes sense as his focus is on a single era of a single country. For this reason, he mostly ignores any larger history of liberalism or anything else, except when needed to put into historical context the developments of certain interpretations.

      For example, at one point he speaks of “nineteenth-century liberalism” (p. 689):

      “The Idéologues and republicans of 1795– 99, consequently, were not therefore forerunners of nineteenth-century liberalism, primarily focused on individual rights and freedoms alone, men unconcerned with or actively opposed to molding society into a different shape and reinforcing the power of the state to protect, guide, and curb inequality.”

      That is as close as he gets to generalizing about liberalism. But, even then, his language implies that he isn’t talking about all historical forms of liberalism.

      In another passage, he seems to acknowledge that there are or may be forms of liberalism that aren’t synomymous with individualism (p. 682):

      “all forms of liberalism focusing solely on individual rights and freedoms without stressing the duty of legitimate governments to promote the common interest and guard the collective good against vested interests, elites, and religious authority, as well as monarchy.”

      What all other forms are or may be he never says. But he does come close to offering a definition of liberalism (p. 697):

      “Not yet the “moderate” or liberal he became later, Constant argued that the catastrophe of Robespierre and the Terror sprang rather from the illiberal, anti-Enlightenment reaction permeating Montagnard Jacobinism.”

      If liberalism is synonymous with a single trait, then for Israel it may be “moderation”. As Losurdo’s liberal is an individualists, Israel’s liberal is a moderate. Or at least, in this case, that is what Israel is saying. But, once again, he is speaking specifically. Does Benjamin Constant define all liberalism at a fundamental level? Israel does not answer that question, much less pose it.

      However, Israel’s analysis seems to show the distinction between liberalism and radicalism isn’t absolute. As this example shows, Constant began as a radical and later shifted toward liberalism (and Paine’s political evolution may be interpreted similarly, although Israel interestingly refers to Paine as simply a radical). We could speculate that, if conditions changed again, Constant may have shifted back to radicalism. How his politics expressed was context-bound. So, maybe liberalism and radicalism are context-bound, existing on a spectrum of available responses.

    • Another factor could be contributing, that of ideological perception in terms of comparison.

      Ideological labels have no consistent, underlying substance. They take their meaning from the social context which is always a relative state of affairs. It is the relationships between categories that defines them in any given situation at any given moment.

      What seems radical in one era seems merely liberal in a later era. And what seems liberal in one era seems conservative in a later era. Sometimes, this applies to individual lives that cut across multiple eras, most significant when comparing the early modern post-revolutionary era that followed immediately after the early modern revolutionary era.

      Alan Wolfe made this argument:

      “[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

      “I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

      “[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

      “When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.”

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