The truth of liberalism

The legacy of political and economic liberalism in modern society has been on trial since at least 1848, if not before.1 But whether or not one chooses to locate the crisis of modernity at a prior date, this was the point at which liberal ideology first came into open contradiction with itself. After the bloody “pacification” of the proletarian uprising in Paris — the violent suppression of the June insurgents by military forces loyal to the National Assembly — the classical liberal ideal of a harmonious, self-governing societas unmolested by state intervention had to be dispensed with once and for all. For here the bourgeoisie could no longer console itself with the reassuring thought that its hand had been forced from without. Unlike the Jacobin Terror of 1793, the nation’s recourse to authoritarianism in June 1848 could not simply be attributed to the pressures exerted on it from abroad, by the looming threat of hostile nations surrounding France on all sides. All of Europe was in the throes of political upheaval; this time there was no Holy Alliance to defend the crumbling edifice of traditional authority. Nor could it be claimed that the revolution had somehow been usurped by reactionary agents working from within, by the imperial ambitions and political machinations of Napoleon. That would come only two years later, with his nephew’s coup d’état.2 Here, at the dawn of the summer months in 1848, the mutual antagonisms underlying civil society finally burst into the open and thus were raised to the level of consciousness. June 22nd, observed one commentator, marked “the tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society. It was a fight for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order.”3 Liberalism had at last run up against its own internal limitations, finding itself unequal to the revolutionary tasks it had first set out to achieve.

Since that time, the historical significance of liberalism has been reckoned in a number of different ways. Various parties have sought to either take up its fallen mantle or forsake it altogether. Among those choosing the former course, many have done so in the name of fulfilling those great promises originally opened up by liberalism — liberté, egalité, fraternité — through the overcoming of bourgeois society as such. Liberal bourgeois democracy, though revolutionary in its day, has outlived its emancipatory potential, and now is felt to only stand in the way of these principles’ higher realization. Others have looked to freeze social relations in their present state, declaring liberal ideology to still be adequate to our moment. In so doing, of course, they are forced to deny or suppress the conflicts that continue to seethe beneath the peaceful veneer of society. More recently, however, some have called into question the emancipatory character of liberalism itself. Its universalism, these critics maintain, is a sham: it is only the elevation of a quite particular (white, male, European) standpoint to the dominant or “hegemonic” position of universality, which then claims a normative status over and above rival, marginalized, and “subaltern” particularities. This is, broadly speaking, the postmodern critique. Still others, looking to fend off this critique, have maintained that liberalism, along with the modern Enlightenment philosophy from which it arose, remains an “incomplete project,” whose results must yet be further generalized.4

Part I: A problematic legacy — The historical genesis of modern liberalism

Losurdo’s Liberalism:
A Counter-History

Into this fraught discursive field enters Domenico Losurdo’s 2006 treatise Liberalism: A Counter-History, translated from the Italian last year by Gregory Elliott for Verso Books. Losurdo, who teaches at the University of Urbino, identifies himself as a philosopher in the Hegelian-Marxist vein of thinkers like Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, and Antonio Gramsci. As its title suggests, his latest book aims to read the history of liberalism against the grain, so as to subvert the triumphalist account provided by its most passionate celebrants and ideologues down through the ages. Adopting the maxims laid down by de Tocqueville at the outset of his 1856 history of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, Losurdo sets about in good dialectical fashion the work of carrying out an immanent critique of liberal thought through an examination of the writings of its core protagonists, as well as the historical realities in which they lived. Quoting the French political theorist at length, Losurdo similarly vows to render the concepts so often invoked with respect to liberalism deliberately unfamiliar:

We think we know [liberalism] quite well because we are familiar with its glittering surface and, in minute detail, with the lives of its most famous personages, and because we have read clever and eloquent critiques of the works of its great writers. But as for the way in which public business was conducted, how institutions actually worked, how the various classes truly related to one another, the condition and feelings of those segments of the population that still could be neither seen nor heard, and the true basis of opinions and customs, we have only ideas that are at best confused and often misleading.5

It would appear that Losurdo, in following de Tocqueville, is here looking to deploy the classic literary device of defamiliarization, later described by formalist literary critics like Viktor Shklovskii.6 Indeed, one of Losurdo’s primary objectives in this work is to challenge the received wisdom of what liberalism even is in the first place. More than once in the course of delivering his interpretation, he repeats the foundational question: “What is liberalism?”7 Against some of the more commonplace answers typically offered up in response, Losurdo points out several ambiguities that problematize any attempt to supply a clear-cut, univocal definition to the term. Was John C. Calhoun, for example, a liberal? He at once sang hymns to the freedom of the individual from state interference, all while ratifying the constitutional unfreedom of black slaves under the law. What about Locke, that Ur-theorist (and indeed the “father”) of liberalism? Here again, Losurdo finds the evidence unclear. On the one hand, Locke denounced in his renowned Second Treatise on Government the political servitude of the citizen to the institutions of Church and State, the alternating tyrannies of the pulpit and the throne. In the space of only a few pages in that same tract, however, Locke can be seen defending the master’s “arbitrary power of life and death” over his legal human property, the slave. John Stuart Mill? An abolitionist, to be sure, but at the same time an apologist for British colonialism.8] Continue reading

Part III: Losurdo in Light of Žižek & Michéa

Two alternative accounts of liberalism recently advanced

Before proceeding, it is helpful to contrast Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History with treatments of liberal thought carried out by two other noteworthy leftists — the Slovenian Marxist critic Slavoj Žižek and the French anarcho-syndicalist philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa.  Žižek’s stature within the world of radical theory has risen to such heights over the last decade that he no longer requires much in the way of an introduction.  Michéa, by contrast, is a relative unknown outside of his native France.  Still, his political orientation is so heterodox that it strikes readers of nearly any origin as eccentric.  Many of Michéa’s critics (and even his supporters) have suggested that he has made a career out of publicly airing his heterodox views and counterintuitive observations.[162]  Michéa understands his own work to be following in the footsteps of George Orwell, whom he has described as a “Tory anarchist” — or conservative anti-authoritarian.  And while Žižek and Michéa may be polar opposites, ideologically speaking, a side-by-side review of their writings about liberalism has the decided advantage of the authors’ past exchanges with one another on the subject.  In his 2007 (translated 2009) book, The Realm of Lesser Evil: An Essay on Liberal Civilization, Michéa picks up on a few of Žižek’s musings regarding the false permissiveness of the postwar liberal household.[163]  Returning the favor, Žižek spends a few pages in the opening chapter of his 2010 work Living in the End Times summarizing Michéa’s thesis about the logical inseparability of political and economic liberalism.[164]

Žižek and Michéa each explore facets of historical liberalism that Losurdo leaves out of his narrative — e.g., “the dramatic wars that defined the everyday horizon of human lives throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[165]  The religious wars raging throughout Europe during this period together constituted one of liberal ideology’s chief formative experiences.  In a 2004 interview with Dianna Dilworth for The Believer, Žižek expressed his appreciation for early liberalism’s response to this challenge:

[O]riginally [liberalism] was not an arrogant attitude, but…was quite a modest, honest attitude of confronting the problem of religious tolerance after the Thirty Years’ War.  In the seventeenth century, all of Europe was in a shock, and then out of this traumatic experience, the liberal vision came.  The idea was that each of us has some existential or religious beliefs, but even if these are our fundamental commitments, we will not be killing each other for them.  To create a coexistent social structure, a space where these inherently different commitments can be practiced…I don’t see anything inherently bad in this project.[166]

Though more traditional wars between rival kingdoms and principalities did not all of a sudden end, Michéa explains that this new kind of religious conflict — the French Wars of Religion, the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War, etc. — now formed their “permanent background,” as a consistent frame of reference.  Liberalism, in Michéa’s and Žižek’s understanding, came out of this context.[167]  “Fear of violent death, distrust towards those around, rejection of all ideological fantasies, and the desire for a life that would at last be quiet and peaceful [shaped] the historical horizon of the new ‘way of being’ that the moderns would now incessantly demand,” explains Michéa.  “It is fundamentally one and the same thing, in their eyes, to establish a society in conformity with the progress of Reason, and to define the conditions that would finally enable humanity to emerge from war.”[168]  In this interpretation, liberalism originally represented an attempt to find an escape hatch, a way out of the cycle of religious conflict.  Michéa even contends that this atmosphere of generalized civil war lay behind Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature as the bellum omnium contra omnes.[169]

In their sympathetic retelling of the origins of liberal tolerance out of the turmoil of the Reformation, Žižek and Michéa capture a dimension that is nowhere to be found in Losurdo’s account.  Oppositely, however, the first two miss one of the Italian thinker’s most original insights concerning bourgeois society, regarding the intricate entanglement of emancipation and dis-emancipation at work in its historical unfolding.  But Michéa is to be preferred when it comes to differentiating the truly revolutionary quality of early liberalism from its later, reactionary form.  He almost seems to have Losurdo in mind, then, when he points out a common anachronism committed by leftists today in talking about liberalism: “As against the absurd idea, particularly widespread on the Left, that liberal policies are by nature ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’ (classifications, moreover, that by an irony of History [Hegel] go back to Benjamin Constant), it is appropriate to see liberalism as the modern ideology par excellence.”[170]  Michéa immediately picks up on the confused temporality at work in the attempt to go back and retrospectively brand classical liberal thought as having somehow been “conservative” all along.  He accuses those who attempt such a maneuver of harboring “a particular interest in maintaining the fiction of a left anti-liberalism.”[171]  Commenting upon the debasement of liberal politics, he thus confidently asserts (paraphrasing Hegel’s famous remark)[172] that “if Adam Smith or Benjamin Constant were to return today — an event that might well raise the level of political debate considerably — they would find it very difficult to recognize the rose of their liberalism in the cross of the present.”[173]

Liberalism as The Realm of Lesser Evil: Jean-Claude Michéa

Besides his knack for exposing such errors in reflective judgment, Michéa displays impressive perspicacity in noticing the relationship of liberalism to the Marxist political project.  Deferring to the expertise of two towering figures in the history of political Marxism, he reminds his readers in a footnote that “Lenin did not hesitate to locate Marx in an intellectual continuity with Smith and Ricardo,” and that his onetime-ally Kautsky had before him “already made Marx the direct heir of ‘English economic science,’ i.e. of original liberalism.”[174]  As Michéa therefore argues,

beneath its radical appearance, [the] “materialist” [Marxist] fashion of viewing things represents no more than a rigorous systemization of the essential postulates of the modern imaginary (already partly effected, moreover, by Adam Smith).  And it was certainly not by chance that the different discourses that today celebrate capitalist globalization, held to be inevitable and eliminating all conceivable barriers to the sway of a unified world market, all rest on the idea that the future of humanity can only be read on the basis of the compulsions of economic growth, itself dependent on the ceaseless advance of “new technologies.”[175]

If Michéa is better than Losurdo at unpacking the historical interconnections between Marxism and liberalism, however, it is only because his politics are far worse.  It is not hard to infer from the tone of the passage just cited that Michéa is profoundly ambivalent to the path charted by liberal modernity.  Insofar as most of the socialist currents inspired by Marx have sought to overcome capitalist society on the basis of capitalism itself, he sees them as merely an extension of the outworn liberal logic of “progress.”[176]  To his credit, Michéa regards the initial impulse that lay behind this modern belief — i.e., that social conditions could be continuously improved over time — as expressing a legitimate “desire to escape at all costs…the hell of ideological civil war.”[177]  Nevertheless, to his mind, the obstinate adherence to this vision of limitless growth in the present is untenable (or “unsustainable,” to use the term currently in vogue).  Michéa therefore chastises Marx and Engels for failing to recognize “the ecological limits that any project of unlimited economic growth would inexorably come up against.”[178]

At this point, Michéa unfortunately lapses into a rather shallow form of moralism.  In this respect, he is not all that far removed from another Orwellian critic of “lesser evilist” politics: the late Christopher Hitchens.[179]  Whereas Hitchens culturally “broke left” in the aftermath of 9/11 — promoting atheism, secularism, and rationality — Michéa has turned to the right.  He heaps scorn upon anything and everything that he takes to be emblematic of the depravity and licentiousness of modern life, denouncing them as “contrary to good sense and common decency.”[180]  Sexual impropriety, obesity, veganism/vegetarianism, and recreational drug use are only a few of the many examples of “indecency” attracting the French philosopher’s ire.[181]  Lamenting the rapid disintegration of traditional “values” and “moral scruples” to capitalism’s unremitting forward march, Michéa announces that he intends “to undemonize the concepts of ‘tradition,’ ‘customs,’ [and] ‘roots.’”[182]  As anarchists go, he is fairly blasé about the personal autonomy and individual rights usually associated with the rise of the modern bourgeois social subject.  Michéa openly objects to “the capitalist lifestyle and its narcissistic individualism,”[183] which erode “preexisting moral and cultural possibilities.”[184]  In one of his most reactionary moments, he even expresses his regret at the breakup of the traditional family structure, and its replacement by the individual as the basic economic unit of society.  He complains of the reduction of conventional bonds of consanguinity to relationships of mere contract,[185] disdaining the way “[t]he bourgeoisie has torn the pathetic veil of sentiment from family relations and reduced them to purely monetary ones,” as Marx and Engels put it.[186]

Here Michéa drinks from the same trough of pro-family, anti-individualist tripe that reactionaries have been peddling for over two centuries now.  The counterrevolutionary Catholic author Louis de Bonald, reviewing Germaine de Staël’s Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, thus found her criticisms of republicanism wanting in this respect, feeling they did not cut deep enough.  While de Staël was fiercely opposed to Jacobinism and its terroristic excesses, she certainly did not pine for a return to the ancien régime, the prerevolutionary past so beloved by de Bonald.  She denounced “compulsory service, such as that of the corvée,and other relicts of feudal barbarism,” as she called them.  De Bonald also took the liberal De Staël to task for railing against “the threefold fetters of an intolerant church, a feudal nobility, and an unlimited monarchy.”[187]  In a xenophobic fit, he alleged that she made too many concessions to England and “her happy and liberal fatherland,” Genoa.[188]  As de Bonald saw it, liberal individualism had slowly (but undeniably) undermined the traditional authority of the family.  “Republics, particularly the English one, only count individuals,” the French royalist wrote in 1818.  “The French monarchy saw only families.  The result is that there is more movement and agitation in republics, and more stability and repose in our monarchy.”[189]

The mid-19th century critic and völkisch theorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl expressed a similar feeling of disquiet when it came to the liberal argument favoring the primacy of the individual over the primacy of the family.  In his 1855 work on The Natural History of the German People, Riehl contended that constitutional liberalism gravely endangered the fundamental integrity of the family unit.  Whereas Hegel taught that the modern state represented the apotheosis of freedom and rationality, over and above the spheres of the family and civil society,[190] Riehl reversed this order: the family, and not the private realm of civil society or the public realm of the state, was the only site where the antinomies of modern existence could be resolved.  (The contrast between Riehl’s reversal and Marx’s reversal of the Hegelian schema in the Philosophy of Right is illuminating: Marx saw the only way to overcome the irrationality of capitalism as the creation of a classless society, in which institutions such as the family and the state could then be abolished).[191]  “Taken to its extreme, a constitutional state would have to lead to a loosening of marriage laws in theory and to the gradual disavowal of the home in practice,” Riehl warned.  “The state, as a mere legal agency, recognizes only individual persons — citizens.  It disregards the natural, historical factor of a collective folk personality, which manifests itself to us in those two mighty organisms, society and the family, that have been ennobled by the moral force of historic traditions.”[192]

Michéa stands on essentially the same ground as Riehl and de Bonald, however, when he looks to derive the practices of “sharing” and “reciprocity” from traditional structures, hoping to thereby offset the selfishness and “egoism” of liberal bourgeois society.  “It is [only by] moving upwards from the specific forms of local (or ‘territorialized’) life, and the one-on-one dealings that come with it (what Alain Caillé calls ‘primary sociality,’ of which family life is a major part) that the elementary structures of reciprocity [might] be put into place.”[193]  Indeed, against this Stirnerian egoism, Michéa is forced to invoke the intellectually flaccid Orwellian notion of “the common decency of ‘ordinary people.’”[194]  The utility of this notion, he claims, consists in its remaining a “deliberately vague and imprecise concept.”  Michéa hints from time to time, however, that this common decency “results from a continual work of humanity on itself in order to radicalize, internalize, and universalize these underlying human virtues expressed in the aptitudes to give, receive, and assist.”[195]  He later enlarges on this idea of “human virtues,” defining them as “psychological and cultural dispositions to generosity and fidelity.”[196]  Now and then Michéa tries to provide his refurbished, latter-day aretaic vision with an anthropological foundation, rooted in Marcel Mauss’ classic exposition of primitive gift economies.[197]  The traditional societies Mauss observed in his 1925 piece, he argued, were governed by the reciprocal logic of “give and take” rather than the selfish logic (or “icy waters”) of “egoistic calculation.”[198]  Given his anarchist sensibilities and the emphasis he places on the anthropological study of the gift, it might superficially appear that Michéa is close to another high-profile anarchist author and anthropologist, David Graeber.  Over the course of the last decade or so, Graeber has explored pre-monetary gift-giving practices in his anthropological work.[199]  This scholarly focus is loosely related to his involvement in the anti-/alter-globalization movement, rooted as it was in principles of direct action and the creation of prefigurative political models.  Conversely, Michéa was unimpressed by anti-/alter-globalization politics, and did nothing to support it.[200]  Moreover, unlike Graeber, Michéa withholds his endorsement of the direct action championed by these politics,[201] preferring “Chinese cultural traditions that privilege indirect action on the conditions of a political process rather than the methodical forcing of the process itself.”[202]

In the last instance, Michéa’s argument that liberal civilization was founded upon a pessimistic view of human nature, which subsequently gave way to arrogant optimism, is unconvincing.  The narrative arc he describes between liberalism’s initial self-consolation as “the realm of lesser evil” and its final self-congratulation as “the best of worlds” does not hold up under cross-examination.[203]  Riffing on Gramsci’s famous dictum, Michéa categorically maintains that “[o]riginal liberalism was…marked by a pessimism of the intellect”[204] — “a radical distrust of the moral capacities of human beings.”[205]  With such philosophers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville, Voltaire, Hume, and Helvétius, this statement may indeed be true.  The same cannot be said for authors like Cumberland, Locke, Hutcheson, Rousseau, or Condorcet, however.  Classical liberal discourse allowed for a diversity of viewpoints regarding human nature.  As it happens, the concept Michéa relies upon to ward off the pessimism he ascribes to liberal thought, “common decency,” is likewise an inheritance of Enlightenment liberalism.  In fact, the entire Scottish school of common sense philosophy — typified by Reid, Ferguson, Stewart, and Hamilton — followed their predecessors Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in their liberal optimism.  Reid, the progenitor of this school, even speculated that shortly after infancy an individual’s “reasoning and moral faculties…unfold themselves by degrees; so that it is inspired with the various principles of common sense.”[206]  The concept of a “common decency” basic to all mankind had already been a part of everyday parlance for several decades by then, antedating its philosophical formalization by Reid.  The periodical Common Sense: The Englishman’s Journal (1738) invoked the notion on a number of occasions.  Its French equivalent, civilité ordinaire, appeared often in the writings of the great liberal skeptic Pierre Bayle, including his groundbreaking 1695 Historical and Critical Journal.[207]

Continue to Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

Toward the beginning of his latest work, Living in the End Times, Žižek briefly reprises Michéa’s final argument in The Realm of Lesser Evil.  While Žižek recognizes the book’s inarguable merit in elucidating the indivisible unity of political and economic liberalism, he regrettably buys into Michéa’s overly simplistic conclusion about liberalism’s shifting historical self-representation.  He thus retraces the path it ostensibly took from imagining itself as “the least worst society possible” to its eventual claim to be “the best of all possible worlds.”[208]  Thankfully, Žižek’s own statements on the matter of liberal thought in history, scattered throughout his various texts and proclamations, at times reveal far greater acuity and insight than those of either Losurdo or Michéa.  Despite his frequent criticisms of liberal multiculturalism’s hyperbolic tolerance and endless, self-flagellating gestures at “political correctness,” Žižek acknowledges the revolutionary contributions of early bourgeois liberalism:

[Historically], liberalism was quite a noble project if one looks at how it emerged.  Today it is a quite fashionable criticism with feminists, anti-Eurocentric thinkers, etc., to dismiss liberalism in principle for preaching the equality of all people, but in reality privileging the white males of certain property, addressing automatic limitations.  The next usual accusation is that liberalism is ultimately founded in what the American moral-majority religious Right likes to call secular humanism: the idea is that there is no Supreme Being or mystery in the universe.  Their criticism is that this idea — that the ultimate prospect of humankind is to take over as master of his own destiny — is man’s arrogance, criticizing that it always misfires and so on…

I don’t think it is as simple as that…It is an historic fact that at the beginning, the idea of human rights and all of those liberal notions, effectively in a coded way implied the exclusion of certain people.  Nonetheless, in this tension between appearance and reality (appearance: everyone has human rights; reality: many, through an implicit set of sub-rules, are excluded), a certain tension is set in motion where you cannot simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression.  Appearance acquired a social emancipatory power of its own…[A]t the beginning, women were excluded, but then very early on, women said, “Sorry, why not also us?” Then blacks said, “Why not us?” And workers, and so on.  My point being that all of these groups that criticize liberalism emerged out of these early bourgeois liberal traditions.  It set certain rules — this tradition of universality of human rights and so on — and in this way it opened up the space.[209]

Here Žižek almost seems to perfectly embody what Losurdo calls “vulgar historicism,” in the derisory meaning sketched briefly above.  Alberto Toscano has neatly encapsulated this phrase of Losurdo’s as “the facile historicist thesis according to which liberalism simply and gradually grew in extension ([first] to the propertied middle classes, then to the lower classes, then to women, then to people of color…) while retaining an intact original inspiration.”[210]  But Žižek is correct to point out that the universalizing overtones in language of bourgeois right, whatever the scope of its intended sphere of application, became the grounds on which certain demands liberty and equality could subsequently be placed.  Whatever excuses the radical bourgeois philosophers may have made for limiting the freedom and equality they proclaimed, even Losurdo must agree that “[t]he theorists and agents of the liberal revolutions…were moved by a powerful, convinced pathos of liberty.”[211]  Žižek’s crucial insight is that the postcolonial and postmodern critiques of liberalism, under which Losurdo’s own “counter-history” can also be subsumed, are all leveled from the standpoint of liberalism itself — and a tepid, eviscerated liberalism at that.  They are thus never able to transcend the built-in contradictions that liberal notions of freedom and equality (what Žižek, employing Rancière’s neologism, terms égaliberté) encounter in bourgeois society.  “The ‘radical’ postcolonial critique of liberalism,” Žižek writes, “thus remains at the standard Marxist level of denouncing false universality, of showing how a position that presents itself as neutral-universal effectively privileges a certain (heterosexual, male, Christian) culture.  More precisely, such a stance is contained within the standard postmodern, anti-essentialist position.”[212]

Against this superficial stance, Žižek correctly locates the unfreedom and inequality of bourgeois society in the alienated subjectivity represented by the commodity-form, in its peculiar position as estranged agency, equivalence, and universality (liberté, égalité,and fraternité, respectively).  Losurdo, though neither a postmodernist nor a postcolonial theorist, repeats their same basic error in overlooking “the emergence of the very form of universality.”  Žižek is thus right to ask: “How and in what specific historical conditions does abstract universality itself become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights?” By interpreting this universality as purely the outcome of white European chauvinism, one sacrifices the historically specific character of modern bourgeois subjectivity.  The importance of this point is nearly impossible to overestimate; indeed, the entire Marxist critique of capitalist society pivots around it.  Or, as Žižek aptly puts it, “[t]his is the point of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism: in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals themselves, in their daily lives, relate to themselves, as well as to the objects they encounter, as to…embodiments of abstract-universal notions.”[213]  Liberal-bourgeois human right, with its lofty pretensions to universality, could thus be extended more or less unproblematically to the rest of society after it first appeared.  Such extensions did not come without a fight, to be sure.  The “struggles for recognition” Losurdo describes were often hotly contested, but the antagonisms associated with such struggles did not prove to be insoluble.  Of course, these forms of discrimination — i.e., structural racism, sexism, and heteronormativity — have hardly disappeared.  The point is that liberalism is more than capable of accommodating difference.  Far from merely “tolerating” diversity, neoliberal capitalism positively thrives on it.  Various marginalized identities appear as only so many niche markets and target audiences.  “[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism,” reminds Moishe Postone.  “[B]ut [it] can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”[214]

Truth be told, liberal society has for some time now managed to outlive the moment it first passed into fundamental self-contradiction.  In the interim, it has incorporated quite a few groups that had formerly been denied rights under liberalism’s “exclusion clauses.”  At what point, then, did this contradiction reveal itself? “For Marx,” Žižek continues in another text, “the sobering ‘day after’ which follows the revolutionary intoxication marks the original limitation of the ‘bourgeois’ revolutionary project, the falsity of its promise of universal freedom: the ‘truth’ is that universal human rights are the rights of commerce and private property.”[215]  One point that remains underdeveloped in Žižek’s account, however, is the duration that was required to arrive at this “day after.”  For this feeling of disillusionment was not revealed all at once.  The liberal faith in bourgeois freedom did not die out in the aftermath of the Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, Waterloo, or even the Restoration.  The light from what Hegel referred to as “[the] sunburst which, in one flash, illuminate[d] the features of the new world” lingered for some time over the skies of Europe, until the black plumes funneling from the smokestacks of industrial society plunged it back into night.[216] And yet, even within the darkness of this night, a still more glorious dawn seemed destined to emerge.  The decisive moment at which this latent contradiction within civil society first manifested itself can be pinpointed with a degree of accuracy uncommon in the interpretation of historical periods — down to the specific date and place.  Such a date was June 22nd, 1848; and while similar conflicts would break out across Europe around this time, the place was the streets of Paris.

This can be bracketed for the time being, however.  One final essay by Žižek on the topic of liberalism should be mentioned before moving on.  His pointed declaration that “Only Communism can Save Liberal Democracy,” published some months back, serves as a sobering reflection on the post-1989 fate of both liberal and leftist politics, as well as the new challenge of right-wing fundamentalism.  Žižek thus underscores two primary forms of barbarism that have (re)emerged in the absence of a viable Left since this time: 1.) various fundamentalist ideologies sprouting up in some of the most exploited sections of the global economic system, and 2.) the recrudescence of regimes of austerity in the more developed countries of the West, as their welfare states swiftly unravel.  To combat this twofold crisis of liberalism, he maintains, an alliance is needed: “In order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left.”[217]  Here, the way Žižek phrases it is rather naïve, but his basic point is correct.

Beginning with the former of these two, he argues that religious fundamentalism is a necessary byproduct of the unchallenged hegemony of political and economic liberalism.  Fundamentalism, as Žižek sees it, is the mirror image of liberalism.  “Fundamentalism is a reaction — a false, mystifying reaction, of course — against a real flaw of liberalism,” he writes, “and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism.  Left to [its own devices], liberalism will slowly undermine itself — the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left.”[218]  Though it may be implied by the tenor of his statement, Žižek forgets to mention that the threat to liberalism posed by fundamentalism — a threat arising from the Right — appears only after meaningful opposition from the Left has disappeared.  On this point, Alberto Toscano has written a nice line vis-à-vis Islamic fundamentalism, noting: “The emergence of Islamism as a political subject does not necessarily represent an express reaction to emancipatory politics, but may rather constitute a capitalization on its absence, on the temporary incapacity of progressives to actually produce a present.”[219]  Another, related consequence should also be apparent from all this. This is that, despite liberalism’s persistence, one cannot speak of an emancipatory politics today — first of all because the Left is dead andsecond of all because liberalism has long since ceased to be revolutionary.  Even Losurdo, who tends to sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists in their various struggles against American imperialism,[220] is concerned by the fact that the most sustained militant movement against liberalism has arisen out of such a reactionary source.  The reason for his concern here owes to his belief that the stimulus for liberal reforms has nearly always come from forces operating outside the ambit of liberalism,[221] and his fear that the latter tends to move in the political direction of these oppositional movements when making concessions.  Losurdo’s evidence for this claim is fairly solid: the emancipation of the slaves in the South was a concession to abolitionist currents, while the welfare state was a concession to socialist currents.  Now that the leading force in the global struggle against liberalism is fundamentalism, however, the thought that the former might edge toward the latter is a frightening prospect indeed.

Religious fundamentalism, as an external challenge along the periphery of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, shaped the political landscape of the early 2000s.  The dismantling of the welfare state, as an internal crisis in the core of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, has shaped the political landscape since 2008.  Each can be seen as a legacy of the 1970s: radical Islam having come out of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and deregulationist neoliberalism out of the Oil Crisis of 1973.  But neither really of these posed an existential threat to liberalism until 1989, with the collapse of “actually-existing socialism” abroad and the final death of the Left at home.[222]  Other commentators, such as Postone, have similarly remarked upon the pattern of “the weakening of national states as economically sovereign entities, the undermining of welfare states in the capitalist West, the collapse of bureaucratic party states in the Communist East, and the apparently triumphant reemergence of unchecked market capitalism.”[223]  Žižek’s analysis of the interdependency of these phenomena goes further here than Postone’s, however.  Beyond simply noting that they took shape alongside one another, Žižek claims that it was the disappearance of the USSR from the world stage that opened up the floodgates for neoliberal hegemony and expansion.  “1989,” observes Žižek, “marked not only the defeat of the Communist State-Socialism, but also the defeat of the Western Social Democracy.”  The downfall of the Soviet Union in the East, he contends, simultaneously spelled doom for the welfare state in the West.  Žižek diagnoses the second of these defeats, the defeat of the Western (European) Social-Democratic welfare state, as symptomatic of the first, the defeat of Eastern (Soviet) Communism.  He describes this state of affairs in unreservedly grim terms:

Nowhere is the misery of today’s Left more palpable than in its “principled” defense of the Social-Democratic Welfare State: the idea is that, in the absence of a feasible radical Leftist project, all that the Left can do is to bombard the state with demands for the expansion of the Welfare State, knowing well that the State will not be able to deliver…This necessary disappointment [will then presumably serve] as a reminder of the basic impotence of the social-democratic Left, and thus push the people towards a new radical revolutionary Left.

As Žižek points out, this line of reasoning is cynical.  The breakdown of the welfare state by no means guarantees a shift to the Left; it could just as easily deliver the “people” unto “Rightist populism.”  While his analysis here is correct, Žižek’s proposed alternative — i.e., that “the Left will have to propose its own positive project beyond the confines of the Social-Democratic Welfare State” — is not much better.[224]  To be sure, the passing of the welfare state (a thoroughly conservative project from the start) ought not be lamented too much.  Without any real hope for achieving revolution, the fight for reforms has also lost any meaning it once had.  Losurdo, hitting a rare pessimistic note, makes this same point.  “In the West…,” he explains, “the disappearance of the challenge posed by a strong international Communist movement and the ‘socialist camp’ has led to a general process of involution.  This [has resulted in] the deconstruction of the welfare state.”[225]

Continue to Part IV: 1848

Part IV: 1848

For a host of reasons, Žižek is not able to do full justice to the program suggested by the title of his essay, that only “communism” (that is, the Left) can save bourgeois-liberal democracy.  Though accurate, this broader point is lost in his focus on the twilight of the welfare state.  Despite their historic rivalry, the projects of liberalism and socialism were always bound up with one another.  At its best, the latter saw itself as a continuation of the former.  The founding insight of socialism was that liberalism had failed to live up to the standards it set for itself.  In the words of Neil Davidson, the greatest socialists have thus fought “for those universal principles of freedom and justice which the bourgeois revolutions brought onto the historical agenda but, for all their epochal significance, were unable to achieve.”[226]  Because liberalism fell short of its own ideals, socialism has been charged with the task of their realization.   Precisely this, and nothing else, is what Marx meant when he stated in 1871 that the proletarian movement has “no ideals [of its own] to realize, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”[227]  Engels, challenging the moth-eaten liberalism of François Guizot, therefore rebuked the aging minister in 1850 for his revisionist account of the English Revolution.  Guizot had opportunistically contrasted the unhurried gradualism of social and political transformation in England with the violent convulsions that would later take place in France.  As Engels was eager to point out, however, the origin of these French revolutionary ideals could be found in the writings of the British liberals.  “M. Guizot forgets that freethinking, which so horrifies him in the French Revolution, was brought to France from no other country than England,” Engels asserted.  “Locke was its father, and with Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke it assumed that keen-spirited form [that] subsequently developed so brilliantly in France.  We thus arrive at the odd conclusion that freethinking on which, according to M. Guizot, the French Revolution foundered, was one of the most essential products of the ‘religious’ English Revolution.”[228]

To put it in the starkest terms imaginable, the advent of socialism would at the same time entail the liberation of liberalism from the unresolved contradictions in which it is still enmeshed to this day.  This is what would be required of the proletariat, by acting “[i]n the full consciousness of [its] historic mission,…in order for it to work out [its] own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending.”[229]  The Left must therefore not only oppose liberalism, but in a sense it must also thereby transpose liberalism by adopting this oppositional stance.  Accordingly, the proletariat must not only negate bourgeois society, but in a sense also complete bourgeois society through this very act of negation.  The path to overcoming liberal ideology, like the capitalist mode of production on which it is based, must be pursued in and through bourgeois society itself.  It is impossible to stand at some kind of Archimedean remove, outside of one’s moment in history.  Along these same lines, Lenin already wrote in 1920 that  “[c]apitalism could have been declared — and with full justice — to be ‘historically obsolete’ many decades ago, but that [has] not at all remove[d] the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism.”[230]

Continue to Socialism or Barbarism?

Socialism or Barbarism?

The decline of the Left over the course of this last century is thus not only a tragedy for those who fought on its behalf, but also for those who traditionally fought against it.  Inasmuch as proletarian socialism aimed at the supersession of bourgeois liberalism, its old nemesis, while simultaneously preserving the latter’s revolutionary accomplishments and raising them to a “higher level,” the former stood for the hope of all humanity — no matter which side one was on.  For as long as it is able to reproduce its own existence, the underlying volatility of capitalist society will remain unchanged (whether or not there is a leftist political project capable of overcoming it).  But the idea that capitalism will simply continue to exist indefinitely cannot at all be supported by historical experience.  Though bourgeois political economists have time and again tried to naturalize the social relations that have appeared immediately before them, mesmerized by the fetish-character of the commodity form, the capitalist mode of production has not always existed.  It came into existence historically, and could just as easily pass out of existence historically.[231]  The issue thus comes down to ascertaining the nature of this historical passage, should it ever arrive at all.  Capitalist society could cease to exist in any number of ways, the majority of which would not be emancipatory in the least.  This might well be the most disturbing prospect of all: that capitalism will collapse and still not lead to a more just, liberated, and equitable society.  As Lukács pointed out, commenting on the revolutionary legacies of Lenin and Luxemburg, “socialism would never happen ‘by itself,’ and as the result of an inevitable natural economic development.  The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis, but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilization and a new barbarism.”[232]  Broadly speaking, there are two scenarios that can be imagined as leading to capitalism’s eventual demise: 1.) cataclysm or 2.) revolution.

In either case, the result would be that capital would no longer exist.  The reason for this would be quite different from instance to instance, however.  Should the former take place, capital would be dissolved simply because it would no longer be able to reproduce and augment its own value through the process of production.  For example, a war could break out that would be of such devastating proportions that the cycles of production and circulation would be fatally disrupted.  Some of the images called to mind are total blight, scorched earth, and nuclear holocaust.  Another possibility would be some sort of global environmental catastrophe.  Should the latter (revolution) obtain, however, capital would be dissolved because human production would no longer be subordinated to its ends.  Humanity would not produce goods simply to extract surplus-value from labor and then be realized on the market, only to repeat this cycle all over again, in perpetuity.  Rather, humanity would produce in order to meet (and surpass) human needs, in a way that does not endanger the provision of such needs in the future.  In this scenario, society would not undertake production for the sake of a category external and alien to itself (capital), but would become its own self-directed end.  Society would only produce for the sake of society and its individual members.  The mystery of capital — and indeed the riddle of all history[233] — is that society is a product of human activity, and yet appears to humanity as an unruly force of nature.[234]  Crises are experienced under the capitalist social order as so many natural disasters, as storms to “weather” or endure.  Humanity is, nonetheless, the unconscious demiurge of this second nature.  It has but to attain consciousness in order to decisively act and thereby claim this system for itself, so that society and its constituent individuals might someday live autonomously.  As Engels once put it:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer…The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.  Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action…It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.[235]

Faced with the polarity dividing freedom and humanity on the one hand from unfreedom and inhumanity on the other, society arrived at a historic impasse almost a century ago.  Since this time it appears to have remained at a virtual standstill, stuck before this fork in the road.  This apparent immobility must not be thought of as an absolute motionlessness, however, qua an absolute cessation of motion or activity.  At best, civilization has merely been spinning its wheels for the last hundred years; at worst, it has politically regressed.  The choice presently at hand poses afresh Luxemburg’s old disjunction of “socialism or barbarism.”[236]  But make no mistake about it: these options do not present themselves as on an empty slate.  Liberalism has been utterly barbaric for over 150 years now.  But the attempts to go beyond it during this time, the many faces of “actually existing socialism,” have been similarly barbarized and enervated.  The twentieth century, Richard Rubin has pointed out, revealed the nightmarish possibility of having both socialism and barbarism, embodied its most characteristic and grotesque form as Stalinism.[237]  A pair of related, if troubling, questions now makes an appearance.  What if liberal civilization still provides the basis for the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds that humanity can realistically hope for? This is, at least in Michéa’s opinion, how it has often understood itself.[238]  And, assuming that liberalism does in fact provide this basis, what if the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds thus established proves impossible to maintain?

This is the prospect raised by Žižek, amongst others, as the specter of ecological and thermonuclear Armageddon continues to haunt contemporary social life.[239]  In one of his more bombastic books of late, In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek summarizes this current state of affairs more succinctly.  “What looms on the horizon today is the unprecedented possibility that [a calamity] will intervene directly into the historical Substance,” projects Žižek, “catastrophically disturbing its course by triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, and so on…It no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will carry on.”[240]  Since the 1970s and the emergence of the environmental movement, many leftists fear that an impending natural disaster will render the Earth uninhabitable, effectively bringing an end to the drama of human history.  Other critics of a Marxist persuasion, such as Fredric Jameson, count no fewer than “four fundamental threats to the survival of the human race today,” throwing global impoverishment and famine as well as structural unemployment into the mix along with ecological collapse and nuclear war.  He immediately adds, correctly, the humbling fact that “in each of these areas no serious counterforce exists anywhere in the world.”[241]  Yet it would seem to be of paramount importance that such counterforces eventually arise so that humanity can continue to exist at all — let alone realize its deepest aspirations of liberty and equality.  Despite capitalism’s much-vaunted “adaptability,” the liberal belief in the self-correcting capacity of the Market seems a dangerous game to play, a concern voiced in recent decades by the Marxian anthropologist Maurice Godelier.[242]  For now, at least, liberalism clearly offers no way out.  With the decline of the Left in the twentieth century, however, no socialist alternative seems readily available.  That is to say, the need for revolutionary transformation has never been greater, and yet the forces necessary for such a transformation have never been in shorter supply.

Lenin remarked in 1917, of course, that revolutionary ruptures necessarily appear as “miracles” to those who witness them.[243]  It is thus perhaps not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that capitalism might still someday be transcended.  If liberalism’s original emancipatory potential is ever to be realized, however, it will require a revolutionary act of sublation — in the strict Hegelian sense of a thing’s determinate negation, its concurrent cancellation and preservation.[244]  As Chris Cutrone has put it: “Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.  The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough.  Socialism is not anti-liberal.”[245]  Despite the recalcitrance it has repeatedly shown to efforts aiming to radically transform it, liberalism’s — and, indeed, all of humanity’s — only chance for survival resides with socialism.  “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity,” Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed in 1918.  The fundamental truth of this assertion remains equally valid today, however much other conditions have changed.  Absent the possibility of its determinate negation, liberalism now instead faces absolute annihilation.  Socialism or barbarism? Revolution or cataclysm?

Continue to Revolution into Reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

Revolution into reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

Classical liberalism, understood as the ideology of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, has for more than a century now been ossified and reactionary.  Just as Marx noticed circa 1830 that traditional bourgeois economics had begun a “transition from ‘disinterested research’ to ‘apologetics,’” becoming “vulgar economics” in the process, a similar transition was taking place within the sphere of bourgeois politics.[246]  Political liberalism only revealed its bankruptcy during the 1848 revolutions, however.  Events such as the Dutch Revolt of 1566, the Great Rebellion throughout the British Isles after 1640, its consolidation during the constitutional coup d’état of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, the Great French Revolution of 1789, all the way up to the July Monarchy of 1830 — in each of these moments, “[t]he bourgeoisie …played a highly revolutionary role.”[247]

The political disturbances that transpired in February 1848 seemed at first simply the continuation of this prior revolutionary pattern.  In June of that year, however, bourgeois-liberal politics faltered.  At this moment, liberal luminaries like François Guizot, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adolphe Thiers, and Odilon Barrot all threw in their lot with the Parti de l’Ordreagainst the proletarian insurrection in Paris.[248]  With Guizot and Thiers, who had become staunch defenders of the status quo ever since they received ministerial positions from Louis Philippe (the “citizen-king”) in 1832, this was perhaps to be expected.  Even then, Thiers — “that monstrous gnome,” as Marx later referred to him[249] — had been Guizot’s chief rival under the Orléanist regime.[250]  Guizot had already by that time come to be considered an extreme conservative in the estimation of most liberals.  Tocqueville despised both men.  So even within the liberal camp, it seems, there was a great deal of tension and variation.  Many of its leading political representatives were still at that time regarded as consistent, forward-thinking advocates of civic freedom, with unimpeachable records serving in public office.  So what became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after this point? Where did its historical commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles go, exactly?

These questions become that much more difficult to answer from the standpoint of the present.  Liberal-bourgeois ideology has been counterrevolutionary for so long now that many have started to wonder if was ever revolutionary at all.  Authors such as Isaac Deutscher,[251] and more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Neil Davidson, have done much to combat this “revisionist” tendency.[252]  All the same, the issue of explaining the transfer of the revolutionary mantle from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat — i.e., from liberalism to socialism — remains.  To adopt Losurdo’s terminology, the relationship of liberalism to radicalism must be determined.  In other words, did one emerge from the other? Or were the two tendencies wholly distinct, historically and conceptually unrelated? Losurdo rules emphatically in favor of the latter.  As he sees it, liberalism and radicalism came out of completely separate origins — arising sui generis (and “ne’er the twain shall meet,” as it were).  Losurdo finds in liberalism no internal dynamism, no motive force of its own.  He thus writes with confidence that “we…must bid farewell once and for all to the myth of the gradual, peaceful transition, on the basis of purely internal motivations and impulses, from liberalism to democracy, or from general enjoyment of negative liberty to an ever wider recognition of political rights.”  Instead, as Losurdo asserts, this wider recognition was only achieved through outside pressures.  “The process of emancipation,” he claims, “very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world.”[253]

By treating radicalism — a category that includes most forms of utopian socialism, anarchism, and Marxism — as utterly exogenous to liberalism, one misses the moment in which (in an almost Hegelian transformation of something into its opposite)[254] liberalism itself became illiberal.  This moment, as stated, is June 1848.  Here the liberal worldview as a project of emancipation finally stalled out, unable to attain to the precedent it had set in 1789.  Later radicals such as Marx, Lenin, and Trotskii never tired of reminding the liberal bourgeoisie of its own revolutionary past.  In the thick of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin remarked that the prospect that most haunted the liberal bourgeois in his time was “the tremendous dangers of the ‘road’ of 1789! The bourgeois has no objection to the path taken by Germany in 1848, but he will exert ‘every effort’ to avoid the path taken by France.”  The difference between the paths traversed in 1789 and 1848, he felt, was instructive.  “What is the radical difference between the two roads?” the Bolshevik leader asked rhetorically.  He immediately continued: “It is that the bourgeois-democratic revolution carried out by France in 1789, and by Germany in 1848, was brought to its consummation in the first case, but not in the second.”[255]  In his own reflection on 1905, Results and Prospects, Trotskii — then Lenin’s political rival — raised a similar point.  He bitterly excoriated the counterrevolutionary senility of bourgeois liberals in his day, proudly proclaiming that, for all its criticisms of the Terror, it was the socialist proletariat that displayed greater fidelity to the revolutionary tradition of the liberal bourgeoisie:

Jacobinism is now a term of reproach on the lips of all liberal wiseacres.  Bourgeois hatred of revolution, its hatred towards the masses, hatred of the force and grandeur of the history that is made in the streets, is concentrated in one cry of indignation and fear — Jacobinism! We, the world army of Communism, have long ago made our historical reckoning with Jacobinism.  The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism.  We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism…

But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anemic, phlegmatic liberalism.  The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonor the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals.  The proletariat has taken the honor of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection.  The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism, and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.[256]

The Left, born amidst the fire and tumult of 1789-1793, retained its status as the Parti du mouvement in 1848, committed to furthering social reforms and spreading revolution.  By contrast, the liberal establishment turned its back on the task of transforming society — a task that remains incomplete to this day.  In so doing, any truth it might once have held has passed into falsity.  Proletarian socialism, if Trotskii is to be believed, raised high the banner of revolution that bourgeois liberalism had let fall.  Betraying the revolutionary ideals it once held, the ensconced bourgeoisie have since then fought merely to preserve the state of affairs it already brought about.  Rather than allow for the fuller realization of human freedom, liberalism has stubbornly resisted attempts to bring the transformation it originally set in motion to its logical conclusion.  As Marx was able to witness firsthand, liberal bourgeois ideology arrived at a crossroads in 1848.  The path it took at this point is widely known.  Liberalism was turned on its head, and drifted from Left to Right.  It went from fostering revolution to sanctioning reaction.

Even then, not all liberals joined the camp of counterrevolution.  The famous Russian émigré Aleksandr Herzen, whom Lenin later commemorated, lived through this changing of the revolutionary guard, as it passed from the hands of bourgeois liberalism to those of proletarian socialism in June 1848.  Though Russian liberals hoped in 1912 to enlist his memory to their cause, celebrating the centenary of his birth, they fell silent on the crisis of faith he experienced in that year.[257]  This crisis arose out of his disbelief and dismay at the series of events that unfolded in the streets of Paris during those summer months.[258]  Though he could not have known the full breadth of the catastrophe, Herzen nevertheless intuitively felt that something had gone deeply, terribly wrong.  More than a month after the massacre, he was still desperately struggling to make sense of what had happened.  “Paris shot people without trial…What will be the outcome of this bloodshed?” wondered Herzen.  Unsure what was to come, he welcomed revolutionary violence in order to clear the path to the future: “[I]t is enough that in this fury of madness, of revenge, of conflict and retribution, the world which stands in the way of the new man, preventing him from living and establishing the future, will fall…So, long live chaos and destruction! Vive la mort! And let the future come!”[259]  Lenin, having the benefit of more than six decades of perspective, was thus able to recognize what Herzen could not: namely, that liberalism had here run aground of the basic antagonism of industrial society — the mortal struggle of capital against wage-labor.  “Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep skepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism,” recorded Lenin.  “[His] spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away, while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured.”[260]  Cutrone parses this twofold recognition as follows:

What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution.  1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied — even if their connection has been extremely fraught.  Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism.  Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this twofold task — and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions.  Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom…to realize both, by transcending both…The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.[261]

Herzen, until then a convinced liberal, was dismayed by what was happening before him.  The proletarians were simply demanding what the liberals had hitherto promised to them, and yet now clearly liberalism found itself powerless to live up to the promises they had made.  The liberal response to this feeling of impotence, as Herzen witnessed firsthand, was to shoot down anyone who dared to raise his hand in protest.  “The liberals were satisfied, but the people were not and raised their voices: they repeated the words and promises of the liberals who now…began killing as soon as they saw that matters took a serious turn,” Herzen mordantly remarked.[262]  Tocqueville, who was terrified by the June insurgency, nevertheless saw it for what it was.  In a letter to his friend Paul Clamorgan, he maintained: “[This] is not a riot; it is the most terrible of all civil wars, the war of class against class, of those who have nothing against those who have.”[263]

Even many leftists who had initially supported the revolutionary events in February experienced similar shock and disillusionment following the June revolt.  The renowned anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an enthusiastic participant in the overthrow of Louis-Philippe that occurred earlier that year, prayed for a moratorium on any further violence after this point.  Proudhon could only stand idly by, however, as the “liberal” government issued the order for the proletarian insurrection to be violently suppressed.  What made matters even worse for Proudhon was the fact that he was a member of government.  Having been elected — along with the future emperor Louis-Napoleon and the novelist Victor Hugo — into the National Assembly that same month, Proudhon remained aloof of the struggle in the streets.[264]  He later came to regret his noncommittal attitude toward the entire affair.  In his aptly titled Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849), Proudhon thus addressed his accuser, Antoine Sénard.  “No, M. Sénard, I was not a coward in June, the insult you threw at me before the assembly,” he wrote, pleading ignorance.  “Like you and many others, I was an imbecile.  I was lacking in my duties as a representative due to a parliamentary stupor.  I was there to see, but I did not see.”[265]  By contrast, Marx’s own assessment of 1848 and its political afterlife was mercilessly critical.  He later famously quipped that the whole drama of 1848 had been nothing more than a farcical repeat of the original tragedy of 1789.[266]  Marx was generally unimpressed by the actual achievements of the 1848 revolutions.  Far more important than what they accomplished, however, was what they revealed.  As Marx recollected in an 1856 address,

[t]he so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society.  However, they denounced the abyss.  Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock.  Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the proletarian, i.e. the secret of the nineteenth century, and of the revolution of that century.  That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848.  Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbès, Raspail, and Blanqui…[But] European society before 1848 [had just barely] felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides.[267]

The abyss of which Marx spoke in this passage was the abyss of bourgeois society itself.  No sooner had the French “people” banded together against Louis Philippe than the fault-lines of class began to appear.  Lenin, in the context of 1905, would later describe how this opposition within society was manifested in Russia in the struggle against tsarism.  This opposition, he wrote, formed an unbridgeable “chasm” dividing society from itself.  “The revolution Russia is going through is a revolution of the entire people,” he happily conceded, with shades of liberal populism.  “However,” he added, “this society, which now seems a united whole…is itself irremediably split by the chasm between capital and labor.  The people that have risen against the autocracy are not a united people.”[268]  By highlighting this division, Lenin was only raising Marx’s basic insight regarding the class character of modern society.  This one foundational insight, which the bourgeois-liberal revolutionaries could not have possibly perceived, was that there is no “people” as such.  Civil society is comprised of mutually antagonistic forces — capital and labor foremost among them.  The contradictory nature of modern society was thus laid bare:

There is one great fact, characteristic of this, our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny.  On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected.  On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.  In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary.  Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it.  The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want.  The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.  At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.  Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance.

All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.  [T]his antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact — palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.  Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.  Or they may imagine that…progress in industry…signal[s] a regress in politics…We know that [in order for] the newfangled forces of society [to work well], they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the workingmen.  They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself…, the first-born sons of modern industry.  They will, then, certainly not be the last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital and wage-slavery…History is the judge — its executioner, the proletarian.[269]

These antagonisms tear at the social fabric; bottomless depths are revealed.  This “abyss,” over which the whole of society is thinly stretched, has in fact been carried over from the many accounts that the bourgeoisie left unsettled in the balance sheet of world history.  “Marx understood the problem of his — and our — epoch as the unfinished bourgeois revolution,” Jeremy Cohan astutely notes, “whose gains would be meaningful only from the standpoint of redemption — what Lukács called the standpoint of the proletariat.”  Redemption here should be understood in its strictest etymological sense, as “payback,” a balancing of accounts, a settling of scores.  But this historical vantage point cannot for a moment be considered terra firma; in history, there can be no permanent or solid ground.  Already for Lukács, Cohan writes, this position had become severely attenuated: “The ‘orthodox’ Marx Lukács found in the politics of the radicals of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, stood at the edge of an historical abyss.”[270]

By the first decades of the twentieth century, humanity had been brought to the brink.  “[I]n August, 1914, the accumulated antagonisms…tore to pieces the ‘peaceful’ cloak of capitalism,” Trotskii reflected in 1919.  “From the heights of civilization mankind found itself hurled into an abyss of terrifying barbarism and bloodstained savagery.”[271]  Insofar as the attempt to foment a world revolution in 1917 failed to extricate humanity from this abyss, however, the question must be asked: Has humanity yet emerged?

Continue to Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism

Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism

The world revolution of 1848 marked a turning point in the history of the Left.  By and large, the old political categories were thrown into crisis.  A number of the terms that had up to that point held common currency now proved to be utterly inadequate to the task of describing the social reality that emerged.  Just as 1789 had introduced a new vocabulary to European political discourse, so did 1848 refine and build upon this prior language of revolution.  Herein lies the root of Losurdo’s error: his misrecognition of the liberalism of the past as the liberalism of the present.  By reifying liberalism in its present, thoroughly reactionary form — particularly as the Austrian neoliberalism of Hayek and Mises[272] — Losurdo denies that it ever had a truly revolutionary role to play.  He equivocates on the issue of liberalism’s merits, offering only backhanded praise — expressing his admiration for its ability to “learn from its opponent” (i.e. radicalism)[273] and a vague appreciation for its doctrine of the limitation of state power.[274]  Certainly, there is no reason to prefer one historical definition of “liberalism” to another.  Yesterday’s liberalism should be afforded no special dignity over its present-day counterpart.  But since it is historical relationships that are at issue here, and not some transhistorical doctrine of politics that obtains past, present, and future, it is incumbent upon the historian to trace out its subtle mutations and shifts of meaning over time.  To try and extract some sort of immutable “essence” out of the multivalent historical significance of liberalism is a fruitless venture.  This means that one must pursue exactly the opposite method from the one implied by Losurdo’s insistent rhetorical repetition of the metaphysical question, “What is liberalism?”

Unfortunately, Losurdo is hardly alone in committing this fallacy.  Numerous leftish scholars and academics — such as C.B. Macpherson, Uday Singh Mehta, and Theodore Koditschek, to name a few — have offered similarly one-sided appraisals of liberalism’s legacy.  Their insensitivity to the variety of meanings “liberalism” historically possessed may be excused by the limited scope of their inquiries, however.  None, except for maybe Macpherson, has attempted to paint liberalism with such broad strokes as Losurdo.  Even then, Macpherson was mostly just interested in disavowing an earlier form of liberalism, so-called “possessive individualism,” the political theory of which had been expounded by primarily English philosophers from Hobbes to Locke.[275]  While he acknowledges that thinkers like Locke, Bentham, and James Mill understood the relation of capital to wage-labor better than their successors J.S. Mill and T.H. Green,[276] Macpherson clearly favors the latter two as providing a stronger ethical foundation for modern liberal-democracy.[277]  As for Mehta, his focus is clearly on a very specific phase of liberalism, a phase in which liberal politics became closely entwined with colonialism — namely, liberalism in power.  Though he does not delineate an explicit timeline of the phenomena he is investigating, the vast majority of Mehta’s source material dates from the second half of the nineteenth century.  Once again, this tends to confirm the periodization set forth in the present essay.  Most of the events Mehta deals with fall under the period of reactionary liberalism, from 1848 to 1873 or 1884, the period immediately following the moment liberalism first came into in crisis.[278]  Mehta suggests about as much by the subtitle of his book.[279]  Likewise, Koditschek’s study of Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination takes up “nineteenth-century visions of a greater Britain,” taking Mehta’s earlier research into the topic as its point of departure.[280]  Accordingly, he does not claim to have unearthed some hidden matrix of domination buried deep within the essence of liberalism.  Only Losurdo is sufficiently ambitious to attempt such a feat.

Oddly enough, it is Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been known to sometimes smooth over the subtler gradations separating one epoch from another, who proves himself the most perceptive here.  In his 1995 reflection on politics After Liberalism, he explains the complex web of concepts and meanings as they existed from the great French Revolution of 1789 up to the June insurrection of 1848.  Many of the distinctions that today are taken for granted, Wallerstein points out, emerged only subsequently.  He writes:

Liberalism was the ideological response to conservatism.  The very term liberal (in noun form)… emerged only in the first decade of the nineteenth century.  Generally speaking, in the period of 1848, there was a blurred field of persons who overtly (or covertly, in the case of the English) supported the ideals of the French Revolution.  The field included persons with such diverse labels as republicans, radicals, Jacobins, social reformers, socialists, and liberals.

In the world revolution of 1848, there were really only two camps, the Party of Order and the Party of Movement, representing, respectively, conservative and liberal ideology, or, if one wishes to use another terminology with origins in the French Revolution, the Right and the Left.  It was only after 1848 that socialism emerged as a truly distinctive ideology different from, and opposed to, liberalism.[281]

As Wallerstein makes clear, the paths of socialism and liberalism at this point — in 1848, that is — diverged.  What had been a more or less undifferentiated camp of opposition to the status quo was now rent asunder by the force of its own internal contradictions.  The familiar “trimodal” political constellation of conservatism — liberalism — socialism, as Wallerstein refers to it, crystallized in this moment.[282]  Against Losurdo’s contention that liberalism and radicalism arose out of completely separate and distinguishable streams of thought, the interpretation offered in this essay argues that these two political traditions share a common origin.  They only became identifiably distinct after the traditional order of the ancien régime seemed to have finally been vanquished.  Bourgeois liberal thought, which had up to that time opposed the system of legal privileges that existed in the old state apparatus — the Ständestaat, or “polity of estates”[283] — was forced to face up to its own internal antagonisms, now that the despotism of the clergy, the nobility, and absolute monarchy had been swept away.  Only then did liberalism turn reactionary, suppressing the further development of the freedoms it had helped bring into being.  This was Marx’s perspective as he expressed it in a letter written to Engels in 1854, just as he was reading the French liberal Augustin Thierry’s History of the Formation and Progress of the Third Estate.  Marx wrote to his friend:

A book that has interested me greatly is Thierry’s Histoire de la formation et du progrès du Tiers État.  It is strange how this gentleman, le père of the “class struggle” in French historiography, inveighs in his Preface against the “moderns” who, while also perceiving the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, purport to discover traces of such opposition as far back as the history of the tiers-état prior to 1789.  He is at great pains to show that the tiers-état comprises all social ranks and estates save the noblesse [the nobility or Second Estate] and clergé [the clergy or First Estate] and that the bourgeoisie plays the role of representative of all these other elements.  Quotes, for example, from Venetian embassy reports:

“These that call themselves the Estates of the realm are of three orders of persons, that of the clergy, of the nobility, and of the rest of those persons who, in common parlance, may be called the people.”  [Vol. 1, pg. 3].  Had M. Thierry read our stuff, he would know that the decisive opposition between bourgeoisie and peuple does not, of course, crystallize until the former ceases, as tiers-état, to oppose the clergé and the noblesse.  But as for the “racines dans l’histoired’un antagonisme né d’hier”[roots in history…of an antagonism born yesterday], his book provides the best proof that the origin of the “racines coincided with the origin of the tiers-état.[284]

What is perhaps most remarkable about Marx’s comments on Thierry’s text is the almost bemused sense of appreciation they seem to express toward the French liberal’s insights.  At the same time, they show none of the biting wit or withering condemnation that Marx typically unleashed upon authors whose works he criticized.  Instead, his attitude toward Thierry might even be characterized as forgiving, or at the very least understanding of the epistemic limitations of the historical epoch in which he was writing.  The tone of Marx’s criticisms here display his recognition of the fact that, in the words of Postone, “forms of consciousness and the very mode of their constitution vary historically and socially.”  As a result, Marx realized that “[e]ach social formation…requires its own epistemology.”[285]  To put it another way, Marx did not see his own work as a refutation of the arguments or ideas with which Thierry was grappling.  Rather, he understood his work to constitute a clarification of these same arguments and ideas. Spencer Leonard, in a recent paper he delivered on this topic, pointed out that “even before 1848, Marx and Engels saw that the fraught (and seemingly intractable) question of liberalism’s relationship to socialism had become ‘the true object of philosophy.’”[286]  In stressing this point, Leonard explained, he only meant “to emphasize what, in the long death-agony of Marxism, most Marxists fail to appreciate: namely, Marxism’s immanence to liberalism.”[287]

Socialism, or what may be called the truth of liberalism, thus did not simply represent the attempt to abolish bourgeois society.  To no less of an extent did socialism represent the attempt to realize bourgeois society’s nearly fathomless potential.  Marxism, as the most sophisticated and consistent expression of this attempt, may therefore be said to be classical liberalism’s truest heir.  By contrast, the various successor ideologies whose thought most superficially resembles the ideals of the old liberalism — Keynesian/Fordist liberalism and Austrian neoliberalism — should be regarded as the falsification of the old liberalism, no more than two different species of its untruth.  Returning to the question of what ever became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after 1848, or where its historic commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles went, the answer thus presents itself.  Forsaken by those who had called themselves liberals, liberalism’s emancipatory project fell to socialism, which thereby also inherited its commitment to advance the cause of liberty and equality throughout the world.  Not only this, however.  Marxian socialism aimed, moreover, to achieve these principles at a higher level than the founders of classical liberalism could have ever imagined.  This might seem to contradict the empirical fact that liberal freedoms, both positive and negative (ancient and modern), have been extended further today than at any prior point in history.  But this does nothing to change the fact that humanity remains unequal and unfree.  Even that which commonly passes for liberty or equality in the present proves woefully impoverished, a mere shadow of what these words once meant.  And insofar as Marxists today look with scorn upon the tradition of classical liberalism, they too pass into untruth.  Or, as Engels once put it in a rousing speech, recalling the great bourgeois revolutionaries of ages past: “If that mighty epoch, these iron characters, [do] not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”[288]

Continue to Notes to “The Truth of Liberalism”

Notes to “The Truth of Liberalism”

[1] “[T]he crisis of bourgeois society in capital after the Industrial Revolution and the failure of the ‘social republic’ in 1848, was the crisis of bourgeois society as liberal…a feature of the growing authoritarianism of bourgeois society, or, the failure of liberalism. As such, socialism needed to take up the problems of bourgeois society in capital that liberalism had failed to anticipate or adequately meet, or, to take up the cause of liberalism that bourgeois politics had dropped in the post-1848 world.” Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s Liberalism.” Platypus Review. (№ 36. July, 2011). Pg. 2.
[2] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Translated by Clemens Dutt, Rodney Livingstone, and Christopher Upward. Collected Works, Volume 11: August 1851-March 1853. (Lawrence & Wishart Publishing. London, England: 1979). Pg. 103.
[3] Marx, Karl. The Class Struggles in France: 1848-1850. Translated by Hugh Rodwell. Collected Works, Volume 10: September 1849-June 1851. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1978). Pg. 67.
[4] “In sum, the project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled.” Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity — An Incomplete Project.” Translated by Seyla Benhabib. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster. (Bay Press. Seattle, WA: 1983). Pg. 13.
[5] Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2011). Pg. 2. Quoted in full by Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliott. (Verso Books. Brooklyn, NY: 2011). Pg. vii. Indeed, Losurdo’s choice to pattern his own study after that of de Tocqueville is no accident, as the great French liberal is one of the figures most harshly indicted in his study.
[6] The famous Tolstoian technique of ostranenie [остранение]. Shklovskii, Viktor. “Iskusstvo kak priem.” From Gamburgskii schet: Stat’i, vospominaniia, esse (1914-1933). (Sovetskii pisatel’. Moscow, Soviet Union: 1990). Pgs. 64-66.
[7] Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 1-7, 27, 106, 241-246.
[8] On Calhoun: ibid., pgs. 1-7, 57, 163, 222; on Locke: ibid., pgs. 3, 42, 163; on Mill: ibid., pgs. 7, 202, 225.
[9] Ibid., pg. 301.
[10] Ibid., pg. 25. On liberalism’s “exclusion clauses,” see also pgs. 124, 163, 173, 181, 248, 341-343. On the “pathos of liberty,” see also pgs. 23, 40, 45, 49, 56.
[11] “The catastrophic crisis that struck Europe and the whole planet with the outbreak of the First World War was already maturing within the liberal world.” Ibid., pg. 323. And further: “[I]t is banally ideological to characterize the catastrophe of the twentieth century as a kind of new barbarian invasion that unexpectedly attacked and overwhelmed a healthy, happy society. The horror of the twentieth century casts a shadow over the liberal world even if we ignore the fate reserved for peoples of colonial origin.” Ibid., pg. 340.
[12] On enclosure: Ibid., pgs. 77-78, 121, 303, 308, 319.
[13] “[A]bsent from ancient Greece was the racial chattel slavery which, in the American case, was conjoined not with direct democracy but representative democracy.” Ibid., pg. 106.
[14] Ibid., pgs. 30-33.
[15] Grotius and Holland: Ibid., pg. 21; Locke and England: Ibid., pg. 24; the Founding Fathers and the United States: Ibid., pgs. 25-26.
[16] Ibid., pg. 77.
[17] While their account of capitalism is often uneven, this formulation does not altogether miss the mark: “At the heart of Capital, Marx points to the encounter of two ‘principal’ elements: on one side, the deterritorialized worker who has become free and naked, having to sell his labor capacity; and on the other, decoded money that has become capital and is capable of buying it…For the free worker: the deterritorialization of the soil through privatization; the decoding of the instruments of production through appropriation.” Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Volume 1: Anti-Œdipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1983). Pg. 225.
[18] Besides Marx’s characterization of this process as such, this is how it was referred to by one of Losurdo’s principal sources on the subject. Harris, R.W. England in the Eighteenth Century, 1689-1793: A Balanced Constitution and New Horizons. (Blandford Press. London, England: 1963). Pgs. 14-18.
[19] Marx, for example: “The immediate producer, the worker, could dispose of his own person only after he had ceased to be bound to the soil, and ceased to be the slave or serf of another person. To become a free seller of labor-power, who carries his commodity wherever he can find a market for it, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and their restrictive labour regulations. Hence the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-laborers appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and it is this aspect of the movement which alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1982). Pg. 875.
[20] Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 90-92.
[21] For a more comprehensive gloss on British and French materialist thought, see Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Holy Family, Or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company. Translated by Richard Dixon and Clemens Dutt. Collected Works, Volume 4: 1844-1845. Pgs. 127-134.
[22] “[In England, t]he heaviest, worst-paid work was entrusted to a stratum that tended to be reproduced from one generation to the next, and hence to a kind of hereditary servile caste.” Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 113. And further: “[O]ften excluded from the enjoyment of civil rights and negative liberty in England itself, the popular classes, by de Tocqueville’s [own] admission, continued to be separated from the upper class or caste by a gulf that calls to mind the one obtaining in a racial state.” Ibid., pg. 124.
[23] “While in London the zone of civilization was distinguished from the zone of barbarism, the sacred space from the profane, primarily by opposing the metropolis to the colonies, the American colonists were led to identify the boundary line principally in ethnic identity and skin color.” Ibid., pg. 50.
[24] “[Liberalism] excluded the non-European peoples from the sacred space of civilization, relegating much of the West to its margins.” Ibid., pg. 246.
[25] Losurdo, Domenico. Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West. Translated by Marella Morris and Jon Morris. (Humanity Books. Amherst, NY: 2001). Pgs. 14, 18, 24-27, 30, 37, 45, 47-48, 55, 57-59, 74, 76, 89-90, 119, 123-125, 141, 208, 214, 223-224.
[26] Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Robert B. Louden. Anthropology, History, and Education. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2007). Pg. 427.
[27] Ibid., pg. 299.
[28] “Unfounded on a historiographical level, the habitual hagiography [of liberalism] is also an insult to the memory of the victims..” Ibid., pg. 344.
[29] Ibid., pg. 311.
[30] Losurdo extends quite liberally upon the argument advanced by Léon Poliakov, asserting that Britain and American colonists understood themselves as the “chosen people” of the Old Testament. Ibid., pgs. 17, 19, 43-44, 63, 150, 229-230, 294, 306, 309-311. Elsewhere he traces this exclusivist mentality to another Jewish source: Martin Buber’s and Franz Rosenzweig’s idea of a “blood-community” [Blutgemeinschaft]. Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War. Pgs. 123-125, 214.
[31] Losurdo, Domenico. “Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt.” Translated by Charles Reitz. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 13, № 4. December 2000). Pgs. 478-479.
[32] Losurdo, Domenico. “What is Fundamentalism?” Translated by Hanne Gidora. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 17, № 1. March 2004). Pgs. 34, 40-41.
[33] Leonard, Spencer. “The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: 2001.” The Platypus Review. (№ 17. November 18th, 2009). Pg. 2.
[34] Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 54, 106, 220.
[35] Ibid., pgs. 19-20, 171, 229, 309, 311.
[36] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (Routledge. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 98.
[37] “The degree of continuity between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has not escaped a whole series of scholars who cannot be suspected of preconceived hostility to the liberal world. While she generously overlooked the North American republic (which had had the merit of offering her refuge), Hannah Arendt explained the genesis of twentieth-century totalitarianism commencing with the colonies of the British Empire. It was here that ‘a new form of government,’ ‘a more dangerous form of governing than despotism and arbitrariness’ saw the light of day, and where the temptation of ‘administrative massacres’ as an instrument for maintaining domination began to emerge. But especially interesting in this context is the fact that not a few US scholars, in order to explain the history of their country, have turned to the category of ‘master-race democracy’ or ‘Herrenvolk democracy,’ in an eloquent linguistic admixture of English and German, and a German that in several respects refers to the history of the Third Reich.” Losurdo, Liberalism. Pgs. 336-337.
[38] “[F]or his plan to build a German continental empire, Hitler had in mind the United States model, which he praised for its ‘extraordinary inner strength.’” Losurdo, Domenico. “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Translated by Jon Morris and Marella Morris. Historical Materialism. (Volume 12, № 2. 2004). Pg. 47.
[39] “Rather than being one single book, The Origins of Totalitarianism consists in reality of two overlapping books which…fail to achieve any substantial unity…[Many have] noticed the disproportion between Arendt’s actual and thorough knowledge of the Third Reich, and her inaccurate understanding of the Soviet Union. In particular, they emphasized the difficulties in Arendt’s attempt to adapt the analysis of the Soviet Union (associated with the outbreak of the Cold War) to the analysis of the Third Reich (rooted in the years of the great coalition against fascism and Nazism).” Ibid., pg. 33.
[40] “Nazism and Bolshevism owe more to Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (respectively) than to any other ideology or political movement.” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Pg. 222. See also pg. 415.
[41] Losurdo repeats the theme of “master-race democracy” throughout: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 102-107, 108, 122-125, 136-138, 150-151, 180, 219, 222, 225, 227, 229, 233, 240, 308, 317, 321.
[42] On Losurdo’s theme of the United States as a “Herrenvolk democracy,” see also Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Pg. 50. See also Losurdo, Domenico. “Preemptive War, Americanism, and Anti-Americanism.” Translated by Jon Morris and Marella Morris. Metaphilosophy. Pgs. 369, 374-375, 380-381.
[43] “It is very difficult to find a critique of this ‘master-race democracy’ in liberal thinking, which is rather often the theoretical expression of this regime. Herrenvolk democracy is instead the privileged target of Lenin’s struggle. The revolutionary Russian leader stubbornly placed in evidence the macroscopic clauses of exclusion in liberal liberty at the expense of ‘red and black skins,’ as well as immigrants from ‘backward countries.’” Losurdo, Domenico. “Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy.” Translated by Graeme Thomson. Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth. (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2007). Pg. 242.
[44] “[T]he young Marx declares the United States to be the ‘country of complete political emancipation’ and ‘the most perfect example of the modern state,’ one that ensures the dominion of the bourgeoisie without excluding a priori any social class from the benefits of political rights…Engels’s position is even more drastically pro-American.…As for the history of the Communist movement as such, the influence of Taylorism and Fordism upon Lenin and Gramsci is well known. In 1923, Nikolai Bukharin goes even further: ‘We need Marxism plus Americanism.’” Ibid., pgs. 366-367.
[45] “The international press is full of articles or attitudes committed to celebrating, or at least justifying, Israel: after all — they say — it is the only country in the Middle East in which the freedom of expression and association exist, in which there is a democratic regime operating. In this way a macroscopic detail is suppressed: government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while the Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity humiliated and downtrodden daily.” Losurdo, “Lenin and HerrenvolkDemocracy.” Pg. 245. See also Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 180.
[46] Losurdo, “Preemptive War, Americanism, and Anti-Americanism.” Pg. 368.
[47] Losurdo, Liberalism. Pg. 338.
[48] Fitzpatrick, Matthew. “The Pre-History of the Holocaust? The Sonderweg and Historikerstreit Debates and the Abject Colonial Past.” Central European History. (№ 41. 2008). Pgs. 500-501.
[49] Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter History. Pgs. 339-340.
[50] “Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Pg. 26. Continue reading


Ongoing Trotsky lecture series and reading group discussion at the New School in New York

Symptomatic residues

Image: Trotsky in Mexico

Summer 2012: Trotsky and Trotskyism

Cubo-Suprematist depiction of Trotsky as Red Army general, 1924

Saturdays 2-5pm

New School for Social Research Building, 6 E 16th St. (just west of Union Square)
Room: 10-01
Please be there promptly as we will begin at 2pm sharp in order to broadcast the lectures in a timely manner.

Or join us via Live Stream! We’ll be broadcasting live every Saturday at 2pm EST.

Early Sketch of Leon Trotsky

Recommended preliminary readings:

+ Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)
+ Nicolas Krassó, “Trotsky’s Marxism” (1967)
• Platypus Historians Group“The dead Left: Trotskyism” (2008)
• Richard Rubin“The decline of the Left in the 20th century: 1933″ (2009)
• Ian Morrison“Trotsky’s Marxism” (2011)
• Mike Macnair, Bryan Palmer, Richard Rubin, and Jason Wright“The legacy of Trotskyism” (2011)
• Grover Furr“Learning from the Communist Movement of the 20th century: A response to Richard Rubin”(2012)
+ Spartacist League, Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978)
+ Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate / A&Z, Introducing Lenin and the Russian Revolution / Lenin for Beginners (1978)
+ Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet: Trotsky biography (three volumes: 1954, 1959, 1963)

Week 1. Jun. 16, 2012

Lecture: (VIDEO) (AUDIO)

• Tariq Ali and Phil EvansIntroducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)
• Leon TrotskyResults and Prospects (1906)

Week 2. Jun. 23, 2012

Lecture: (VIDEO) (AUDIO)
Apologies for the technical glitches in the video recording – participants are strongly encouraged to listen to the audio file for a clean recording.

+ Trotsky, 1905 (1907)

Week 3. Jun. 30, 2012

Lecture: (VIDEO) (AUDIO)

• TrotskyTerrorism and Communism (1920)
• TrotskyThe Lessons of October (1924) [PDF]
+ Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924)
+ Bret Schneider, “Trotsky’s theory of art” (2011)

Week 4. Jul. 7, 2012

Lecture: (VIDEO) (AUDIO) 

+ Trotsky, Where is Britain Going? (1925)
+ Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution 1927–31 (1932)
+ Trotsky, writings on the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the German Left (1930–40), especially “To build communist parties and an international anew” (1933)

Week 5. Jul. 14, 2012


• Trotsky“Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1937)
• TrotskyThe Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (1938)
+ Trotsky, “Trade unions in the epoch of imperialist decay” (1940)
+ Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1936)
+ Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (1939/40), especially “Letter to James Cannon” (September 12, 1939)
+ Trotsky, “Art and politics on our epoch” (1938)
+ Mary McCarthy, “My Confession” (1954)

Week 6. Jul. 21, 2012


+ James Cannon, “The coming American revolution” (1946)
+ C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, et al., “Program of the minority tendency of the Workers Party/U.S.” (1946)
+ C.L.R. James, “Dialectical materialism and the fate of humanity” (1947)
+ Herbert Marcuse, “33 Theses” (1947)
+ Earl Browder and Max Shachtman with C. Wright Mills, “Is Russia a socialist community?” (1950)
+ Ernest Mandel, “The theory of ‘state capitalism’” (1951)
+ Michel Pablo, “On the duration and the nature of the period of transition from capitalism to socialism” (1951)
+ Pablo, “Where are we going?” (1953)

Week 7. Jul. 28, 2012


+ Cornelius Castoriadis, “The workers and organization” (1959)
• Cliff Slaughter“What is revolutionary leadership?” (1960)
• Revolutionary Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party/U.S.“In defense of a revolutionary perspective”(1962)
+ Tony Cliff, “The coming Russian revolution” (final chapter of Russia: A Marxist Analysis, 1964)
+ Hal Draper, “The two souls of socialism” (1966)
+ Isaac Deutscher, “Marxism in our time” (1965)
+ Murray Bookchin, “Listen, Marxist!” (1969)
• Spartacist League“Genesis of Pabloism” (1972)