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. 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.”
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. 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 — had been Guizot’s chief rival under the Orléanist regime. 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, and more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Neil Davidson, have done much to combat this “revisionist” tendency. 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.”
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) 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.” 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.
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. 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. 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!” 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.” 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.
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. 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.”
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. 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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.”
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.” 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