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.
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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.
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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. 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: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13250”
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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.