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 — 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) and a vague appreciation for its doctrine of the limitation of state power. 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. 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, Macpherson clearly favors the latter two as providing a stronger ethical foundation for modern liberal-democracy. 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. Mehta suggests about as much by the subtitle of his book. 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. 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.
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. 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” — 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’histoire…d’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.
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.” 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.’” 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.”
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.”
Continue to Notes to “The Truth of Liberalism”