Liberalism's exceptions

Liberalism: A Counter-History

FRUSTRATION WITH liberal politicians and groups is common on the left. People look to liberal parties and organizations as an alternative to the right wing. For those who are principled antiracists or against war, this can be a rocky relationship. Liberal politicians and their ideological supporters talk about human rights, democracy, and generally being on the side of ordinary people. They claim to be against racism, sexism, and oppression in general. But from Bill Clinton’s support of the death penalty and his attack on welfare (despite his purported antiracism) to Obama’s support and extension of the Bush-era policies of war and Islamophobia he once vocally rejected, liberals have often acted in direct opposition to the principles they claim to stand for.

According to Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, this is nothing new. In fact, as long as liberalism has been around it has always had what he calls “exclusion clauses” that contradict its claims to support freedom, justice, and equality.

Losurdo starts off his book with the general question, “What is liberalism?” He continues to ask this question throughout the book at different moments. In the beginning of the book he gives the typical textbook answer: “Liberalism is the tradition of thought whose central concern is the liberty of the individual.” The problem is that prominent liberal thinkers and the societies that they inspire are often no more liberal than thinkers and societies that are usually counterposed as illiberal or conservative.

Losurdo offers numerous examples of this throughout the book. For instance, he looks at the lead-up to the American Revolution and the arguments coming from both sides of the Atlantic. The textbook story goes that the Founding Fathers and their fellows in the colonies were the liberal advocates of freedom. They called for freedom against the despotic monarchy in Britain. And in some sense, this is true. But Losurdo digs a bit deeper. On one hand, the freedom-loving colonists were often slaveholders, while on the other hand, many loyalists, who opposed the liberation of the colonies, were harsh critics of slavery. One such loyalist, Jonathan Boucher, observed after his exile to England that, among the would-be revolutionaries, “the most clamorous advocates for liberty were uniformly the harshest and worst masters of slaves.”

This is the main theme that runs through the book. These “exclusion clauses” to liberalism’s claim to be the champion of freedom can be found within the writings of the great philosophers and the behavior of the great liberal civilizations. Losurdo takes aim at the writings of the philosopher and founder of the liberal tradition, John Locke. He writes of Locke’s writings, “We are dealing with texts deeply impregnated with the pathos of liberty, the condemnation of absolute power, the appeal to rise up against the wicked ones who seek to deprive man of his liberty and reduce him to slavery.” But then we have the “exclusion clauses” in Locke’s thought. On the slave trade, Locke thought “captives taken in a just war…forfeited their lives and, with it, their liberties.” Those taken were legitimately “subjected to the absolute domination and arbitrary power of their masters.”

On the subject of Native peoples, Locke was no better. Because the American Indians were “ignorant of labor, which was the only thing that could confer property right” as well as “ignorant of money,” they could not be considered “joined with the rest of mankind.” Thus, they were the same as “one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security. . . therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger.”

And this was no mere abstract critique. Locke wrote such works as Two Treatises on Government with many references to the American colonies. He was already influential and wanted to have an influence on the society it was to become. So it should come as no surprise that the American elite that led a revolutionary struggle against a monarchy in order to be free both socially and economically would see no contradiction in maintaining a slaveholding society or in conducting a Western expansion that entailed the genocide of Native Americans. Official liberalism endorsed such practices from the start.

The exclusion clauses, as they work through history, illustrate what Losurdo calls the principle of “emancipation and ­
dis-emancipation.” This idea cuts against the idea of the steady, sometimes slow progress of history common in liberal thought. The story goes that we are always progressing toward ever-greater liberty and progress. Sometimes there are hiccups in this process, but this is the general trend of history. For Losurdo—and Marx—history is different. It has the possibility of leaps forward, but this progress can be beaten back into periods of stagnation or even regression.

To show this idea, Losurdo uses the example of the U.S. Civil War. The war itself dispels the myth of slow and steady progress. It was a war of such magnitude and ferocity that its effects are still felt in debates around racism today. The Union victory included an attempt at “overcoming the exclusion clauses characteristic of the liberal tradition” in the United States, namely the institution of human chattel slavery in a “free” democratic republic. This seemed to be successful as the victory gave way to Reconstruction, where freed slaves even held public office in places in the deep South that have not seen Blacks in places of official power since. This progress gave way to regression in the form of white supremacy enforced by terrorism, otherwise known as Jim Crow.

It took the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s to destroy the official structures of Jim Crow. But the exclusion clause was not finished, as the official structures were replaced by coded racism, the corrupt criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex. It will take further struggle to eliminate this exclusion clause and win progress toward the ideals liberalism claims to advocate.

Up to this point, Losurdo’s critique of liberalism is very insightful, and the sheer mastery of the writings and historical events that he marshals is impressive. But what is the solution to liberalism’s exclusion clauses? Throughout history the main­stream liberal tradition has met with more radical opponents. The French philosopher Denis Diderot was a harsh critic of both slavery and the oppression of Native Americans. He even looked to the oppressed themselves for liberation, as he famously wrote of a Black Spartacus who would lead slaves in the Americas to their liberation. Some saw Toussaint L’Ouverture’s role in the Haitian Revolution as the expression of Diderot’s hope. Samuel Johnson also was a major advocate of emancipation and living in peace with Native Americans in the pre-revolutionary years. Marx and the socialist tradition also gave liberalism a great challenge with regard to the oppression and exploitation of labor and against colonialism.

So, how does Losurdo look to over­coming liberalism’s exclusion clauses? He advocates struggle as a way to test them, but he offers no clear ideas or orga­nizational model in which to do this. He criticizes Marx for

opposing the “political revolution” to the “social revolution”…or “political emancipation,” which is the objective of the first, to “social emancipation” (the end of class domination), which is the objective of the second. The limitation of this…is that it does not take into account that for some social or ethnic groups the liberal revolution did not involve any kind of emancipation.

This in some ways led the “countries that were formed in Marx’s name” to have their own exclusion clauses. In other words, Losurdo asserts that Marx overestimated the liberal revolutions’ level of emancipation by thinking that in those countries only the socialist revolution remained to end the capitalist class system. Basically, Marx privileged class over other oppressions, and the societies formed in Marx’s name followed suit and ignored or fostered national, racial, and sexual oppression.

This wrongheaded critique of Marx may be a result of the author’s own background in Stalinist politics in the Italian Communist Party; he views the ex-Communist countries as being socialist, instead of class societies run in the interest of ruling classes which oppressed and exploited their populations, including racial minorities, and used war to expand their influence just as in the West. This actually directly conflicted with Marx’s view of socialism. Also, a look at Marx’s writings will reveal a rich tradition of fighting racial and colonial oppression as well as class exploitation.

Liberalism: A Counter-History is a great read for its devastating critique of liberalism and its wealth of historical and philosophical information. It is in Losurdo’s attempt at a political strategy that the book goes awry, particularly in his critique of Marxism. We do need a society of freedom, justice, and equality without the exclusion clauses Losurdo identifies. But to achieve Losurdo’s goals it is best to look elsewhere, namely the classical Marxist tradition, for the politics and organization necessary to get the job done.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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