Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo

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Image: Photograph of the Paris barricade during the
1871 Commune, taken by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg

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On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History
(2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full video of the interview can be found here.

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Ross Wolfe:
How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, respectively, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another — paid and unpaid labor — isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either.

RW: You compile some disturbing passages from Locke, Mandeville, and Smith in which they liken workers to horses and other beasts of burden. You also offer a selection from one of Abbé Sieyès’s private notebooks in which he refers to wage-laborers as “work machines.” Hobbes claimed that there was a sensate understanding “common to Man and Beast,” and La Mettrie famously wrote of the “machine-man.” Might this language reflect these thinkers’ encounter with British and French materialism just as easily as it might indicate deliberate dehumanization?

DL: With the dehumanization of the working class in the liberal tradition, I don’t believe that this has to do with the materialistic vision of the world. These liberal theorists, on the one hand, dehumanized the working-man, while, on the other hand, they celebrated the great humanity of the superior classes. I quote in my book a text by Sieyès, a French liberal who played a considerable role in the French Revolution, in which Sieyès dreams of the possibility of sexual relations between black men and apes in order to create a new race of slave. That is not a materialistic vision. On the contrary, it is a futuristic, idealistic, and eugenicist vision to create a new race of workers who can increase productivity but who would be forever obedient to their masters.

Pam C. Nogales C.: In the seventeenth century, at least in England, doesn’t private property become the grounds on which certain demands of liberty can be made against the order of the king? Was it merely a historical necessity that demands of liberty could only be made through this particular form of private property? Or was this already a reactionary position to take, even in the seventeenth century?

DL: I would continue to stress this entanglement of emancipation and de-emancipation. The statement according to which men have the right to think freely and convey their opinions is of course an expression of an emancipatory process. But we must add that this class of property-owners, once free of the control of the government, could impose a new regime of control over their servants and slaves. In the first phase of the bourgeois-liberal revolution, the servants were without even liberal liberty, as well. I have quoted, for instance, that the inhabitants of the workhouses were deprived of every form of liberty. The [indentured] servants who were transferred to America, they were more like slaves. They were not modern wage-laborers. For instance, Mandeville writes that the worker must attend religious services. That is, they were not free in any sense of the word. On the workhouses, I quote Bentham at length, who claimed to be a great reformer, but was truthfully a great advocate of these workhouses. He envisioned the formation of an “indigenous class” of workers born within these workhouses, who would therefore be more obedient to their masters. This has nothing to do with modern wage-workers.

PN: This gets back to the question of whether or not capitalism offers new forms of freedom while simultaneously posing new problems of unfreedom. On the one hand, we live in a most unfree moment. One could highlight the historically unprecedented living conditions for the worker in the crowded tenement houses of Manchester, or point out that his employer is only interested in gaining profit and not in granting him any form of freedom. But is the formation of a working class not at the same time a historical transformation of the conception of a subject in society that has implications beyond its manifestation in its present moment? After all, the worker is not identical with his social activity. He, as a bourgeois subject, has the right to work. Does bourgeois right point beyond itself and is thus not reducible to how it immediately appears?

Marx arrested in Brussels, 1848. Sketch by N. Khukov, 1930s.

Marx arrested in Brussels, 1848. Sketch by N. Khukov, 1930s.

DL: Of course I agree with you that some theorists from the ruling class end up inspiring other classes that were not foreseen as participants in liberal right. Consider Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolution in Santo Domingo, which later became Haiti. How can we explain this great revolution? We see in France The Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the original version of this document, the Rights of Man did not include colonial peoples or the blacks. But we see Toussaint Louverture who read this proclamation and claimed these rights for the blacks, as well. And we have this great revolution as a result. This is not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, however. On the contrary, Toussaint Louverture was obliged to struggle against the French liberals of the time, who admired the conditions that obtained in the southern United States of America and strove to continue the oppression of the black slaves. In Santo Domingo, the slaveholders were at first positively impressed by the French Revolution. They thought this meant freedom from the control of the king, such that they could now freely enjoy slavery, and their property, the slaves. Toussaint Louverture drew the opposite conclusion, and thus became the organizer of one of the greatest revolutions in history.

PN: Concerning the radical inspiration for the framework you set up between Toussaint and the French Revolution, the striking thing about the Haitian Revolution is that it caused a division within France. It was not simply Toussaint versus the French liberals; the Haitian Revolution actually caused the French liberals to split and led to disarray. It raised another problem: Insofar as France could militarily continue to defend itself from counterrevolutionary forces in Europe, at this particular moment, it still depended on colonial production. It therefore seems to me that the Haitian Revolution posed the problem of the radicalism of liberalism straightforwardly and there were a number of responses. Is it possible to call Toussaint a liberal because he believed in the promises of liberalism?

DL: No! Toussaint was a Jacobin. Between the Jacobins and the liberals there was a great deal of struggle. If we read all the authors who are generally classified as liberal — for instance Constant, de Tocqueville, and so on — they spoke very strongly against Jacobinism. For these liberal authors, Jacobinism was something horrible. I don’t agree, therefore, with your claim that there was a “split” within the liberal parties of France. Jacobinism is in my interpretation a form of radicalism, because they appealed not only to the liberation of the slaves “from above,” but struggled together with the slaves in order to overthrow slavery. After the fall of the Jacobins in France, the new government began to immediately work for the restoration of slavery. The French slave-owners had acclaimed the first stage of the French Revolution, since they thought they could then freely exercise control over their slaves. After the advent of Jacobinism and the radicalization of the Revolution, the liberals went to the United States and expressed their admiration.

RW: Could you elaborate on the historical and conceptual distinction you draw between liberalism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other?

DL: Even if we conceive of radicalism as the continuation of liberalism, we should not forget that, for instance in the United States, even the formal abolition of slavery was the consequence of a terrible conflict, a war of secession. We don’t see a direct continuity between liberalism and the abolition of slavery, because this liberation was only made possible by a protracted Civil War. But Lincoln, too, was not a representative of radicalism because he never appealed to the slaves to emancipate themselves. Only in the final stage of the war of secession, in order to add more soldiers in the struggle against the South, did Lincoln agree to let some black soldiers fight.

It is another fact that in the history of liberalism, Robespierre is not considered a liberal, but a strong enemy of liberalism. In the French Revolution, it was Robespierre who abolished slavery, but only after the great revolution in Haiti. He was then compelled to recognize that slavery was over.

The author who makes the best impression on the issue of slavery is Adam Smith. Smith was for a despotic government that would forcibly abolish slavery. But Smith never thought of the slaves as catalysts of their own liberation. So on the one hand, Adam Smith condemns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we asked him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.

If we look at the history of the American continents, we can ask: Which was the most liberal country? I believe it was the U.S. But now, if we ask the question: Which was the country that had the greatest difficulty in the emancipation of the slaves? Again, it was the United States.

But if we consider the succession of emancipation in the American continents, we see Haiti first, followed by the countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Mexico, and so on), and only later the United States of America. If we read the development of the world between the United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States — after defeating Mexico, after annexing Texas — reintroduced slavery into these territories where it had already been abolished. This, in my eyes, demonstrates that we cannot consider the abolition of slavery as a consequence of liberalism.

RW: How would you account for the admiration of Marx for a figure like Lincoln, who created the conditions (through war) for the emancipation of the slaves?

DL: Of course Marx was right in his admiration for Lincoln. Lincoln was a great personality, and Marx had the merit to understand that the abolition of slavery would bring about great progress. Why do I say this? Because in utopian socialism, there were those who constructed this argument: “Yes, capitalism is slavery. Black slavery is only another form of slavery. Why should we choose between the Union and the Confederacy? We see in North and South only two different forms of slavery.” Lassalle, for instance, was of this opinion. Marx understood very well that these two different forms of slavery — wage-slavery and slavery in its most direct form — were not equivalent. The South was for the expansion of slavery.

PN: For Marx, what was really at stake in the Civil War were the historical gains made by the bourgeois revolutions, on which any proletarian revolution would have to depend. And insofar as liberalism in its post-1848 moment had begun to undermine the promises of the bourgeois revolutions, it was no longer revolutionary. Do you think that with the relationship between Marx and the American Civil War, there was a certain promise that, insofar as slavery could be abolished, bourgeois right could potentially be radicalized?

DL: I am critical of some ideas of Marx, but not the enthusiasm with which he greeted the struggle of Lincoln or the Northern Union. In this case Marx was correct. But Marx spoke of the bourgeois revolutions as providing political emancipation. Perhaps he didn’t see the aspect of de-emancipation. We can make a comparison with the middle of the nineteenth century: the U.S. and Mexico. In Mexico, no bourgeois revolution took place. In the U.S. we must say that the American Revolution was a form of bourgeois revolution. Comparing these two countries, we see that in Mexico, slavery was abolished. In the U.S. slavery remained very strong. Why should we say that in the U.S. the political emancipation was greater than in Mexico? I don’t see why.

RW: In explaining the manifold “exclusion clauses” that restricted the application of bourgeois rights to certain privileged groups or individuals, you use the old dichotomy of the “sacred” and “profane.” According to this model, those fortunate enough to live inside the boundaries of this “sacred space” at any given moment can be said to inhabit the “community of the free,” while those who fall outside of its domain are meanwhile relegated to the “profane space” of unfreedom. Why do you associate freedom with sanctity, and unfreedom with profanity?

Marx and Engels in 1848

DL: In this religious analogy, the “sacred space” is, of course, the space that is more highly valued than any other. With liberal ideology, we see a religious attitude. But that isn’t the most important point, because even in normal language, “sacred” has a more positive meaning. Regardless of whether one is religious, when people speak of something that is “sacred,” what this means is that this thing has a particular importance.

RW: How do you account for the rise of nationalism, the role it played in carving out the “sacred space” of the “community of the free”? Nationalism goes virtually unmentioned in your account. Lost, then, is the patriotic particularity that emerged opposite Enlightenment universality at the outset of the eighteenth century. In your work on Heidegger, you draw on the sociologist Tönnies’s distinction between “society” [Gesellschaft] and “community” [Gemeinschaft] to explain the exclusivist connotations of the ideology of the national or folk community (the Volksgemeinschaft promoted by the Nazis).[1] Insofar as it displaced the spiritual energies traditionally invested in religion to that of the nation, might this be the root of the “sacred space” that you associate with the (national) “community of the free”?

DL: Regarding “sacred space” and “profane space”: I make a comparison with religion because religion proceeds in this way. Profane derives from a Latin word. Fanum was the temple or church. Profanum was what was outside the church. That is the distinction that we find already in the first phase of religious consciousness. Liberalism proceeds in the same way — we have the fanum, or temple, which is the space of the community of the free. Profanum is for the others, those outside of this space.

Why do I use this formulation for the community of the free? I don’t believe that the category of “individualism” is adequate to the description of liberal society. “Liberalism” and “individualism” are self-congratulatory categories. Why? If we consider individualism, for example, as the theory according to which every individual man or woman has the right to liberty, emancipation, and self-expression — that is not what we see in liberal society. We have spoken of the different forms of exclusion, of colonial peoples, of workingmen, and women. Therefore, this category is not correct.

RW: But is it liberal society or the national community that is free? In your study on Heidegger, you distinguish between the more universal category of “society,” the societas or Gesellschaft, and the more particular category of “community,” the communitas or Gemeinschaft. Isn’t this distinction useful here?

DL: If we consider the history of liberalism, we see on the one hand a “community of the free” that tends to be transnational. But on the other hand, we already see nationalism in this liberal society. For instance, Burke speaks of “the English people,” a people in whose “blood” there is a love of liberty. There is a celebration of the English people. The ideology of nationalism was already present in liberalism. England—though not only England—claimed to be a special nation, a nation involved in a project of liberty. Of course in the twentieth century we have a new situation, where Heidegger celebrates the German nation.

PN: Isn’t the transformation of concepts like nationalism symptomatic of a deeper problem in liberalism itself? Doesn’t the shift that takes place in 1848 indicate the conservative (and thus reactionary) transformation of the liberal tradition, because a latent conflict within bourgeois society was only now being historically manifested? Since you raised the criticism of how Marx conceived of bourgeois revolutions, I would like to talk about the relationship of liberalism to Marxism, specifically in the moment of the mid-nineteenth century. To what extent would you say that the success of a radical or Marxist conception of revolution be the negation of liberal society, and to what extent would you say that it would be the fulfillment of liberal society?

DL: One can find a new definition of liberalism and say that the October Revolution of 1917 was a liberal revolution — why not? But in normal language, the October Revolution is not considered a liberal revolution. All the liberal nations of the world opposed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx does not speak at any great length about liberalism. He speaks about capitalism and bourgeois societies, which claimed to be liberal. I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation. Marx makes a distinction between political emancipation and social emancipation. Social or human emancipation will be, in Marx’s eyes, the result of proletarian revolution. On the other hand, Marx says the political emancipation that is the result of bourgeois revolution represents progress.

Again, I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery. In my book I quote several contemporary U.S. historians who claim that the American Revolution was, in reality, a “counter-revolution.” Why do I quote these historians? They write that if we consider the case of the natives or the blacks, their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course the condition of the white community became much better. But I repeat: We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided. Perhaps he knew little about the conditions in America during the American Revolution. He knew the War of Secession well, but perhaps the young Marx was not familiar with the earlier history of the U.S.

Another example of the one-sidedness of the young Marx can be found in On The Jewish Question. He speaks in this text of the U.S. as a country of “accomplished political emancipation.” In this case, his counter-example is France. In France, he claimed there was discrimination based on wealth and opportunity. This discrimination was disappearing, and was now almost non-existent, in the U.S. But there was slavery in the U.S. at this time. Why should we say that the U.S. during the time of slavery had “accomplished political emancipation”?

Maximilien Luce, Une rue à Paris en Mai 1871 ou La commune,
oil on canvas, 222.5 cm x 151 cm, 1903–1905 (Musée d’Orsay).

RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?

DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of The Rights of Men.

In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.

Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such — not the limitation of power, but its disappearance — the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.

RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State — as Lenin, following Engels, put it — was misguided?

DL: Totally misguided!

RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?

DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty — this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.

Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.

RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.

DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.

Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.

RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?

DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism. |P

Transcribed by Ross Wolfe.

1. Domenico Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (Humanity Press, Amherst NY, 2001).

9 thoughts on “Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo

  1. Pingback: Liberalism: the illiberal “statism” of Losurdo « The Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

  2. Hello, I’d like to traduce this interview for a french militant magazine. Is there any conditions for that? Could you contact me on my e-mail (dzamora66@gmail.com).
    thanks,

    Daniel Zamora

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