Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo


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


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.

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. Continue reading