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]

Taking stock of the internal tensions abounding within liberal bourgeois thought, Losurdo rejects as insufficient any attempt to blithely explain away these ideological inconsistencies as if they were of no consequence. Liberalism’s inner divisions and cognitive dissonances were real, and cannot be so easily glossed over. They deserve rather to be taken seriously, insists Losurdo. And so what he instead chooses to affirm about liberalism is precisely the simultaneity of its contradictory aspects, discovering a dialectic of “emancipation and dis-emancipation”9 hidden within its own conceptual underpinnings. Central to Losurdo’s thesis are three main contentions. To begin with, he controversially asserts that the dis-emancipatory characteristics of liberalism are by no means accidental to its historical appearance. Quite the opposite, argues Losurdo: the emancipation of certain class elements within society was indissolubly bound up with the domination of others. A corollary to this claim is the argument that the universal rights proclaimed by liberal thinkers were, from the very beginning, explicitly predicated upon “macroscopic exclusion clauses” that left large swaths of the population outside their sphere of application. Thus, despite producing documents that were clearly “inspired and pervaded by a universal pathos of liberty,” the reality of liberal society failed to measure up to its high-minded rhetoric.10 Losurdo’s third major premise in his interpretation of Liberalism is that the totalitarian and exterminative logic that legitimated the fascist regimes of the twentieth century and justified the genocidal atrocities they committed had been gestating within liberal society for some time. This logic, Losurdo maintains, was already at work in the colonial and expansionist projects undertaken by the self-professed liberal governments of Holland, Great Britain, and the United States.11]

The dialectic of emancipation
and dis-emancipation

Of the book’s three overarching claims, the first — which holds that the emancipation of some sections of civil society under liberalism necessarily entailed the dis-emancipation of others — is easily the most interesting. Depending on where it occurred, however, this concomitant dis-emancipation assumed different forms. That is to say, as Losurdo points out, that the precise manner in which certain populations were immiserated depended largely on their relative position vis-à-vis capitalist development (i.e. whether they were situated at the core or periphery of value-accumulation). In the colonies belonging to the great liberal European powers, the dis-emancipation implied by liberal economic policies was first made manifest in the increased volume of transatlantic trade of slaves originally enthralled in Africa. This took place alongside the widespread subjugation of indigenous peoples in the Americas and subcontinental India. While the enslaved status of blacks in the colonies was passed on to their descendents on a hereditary basis, the indenture of local subject-populations was usually maintained by threat of military force. At the same time, however, Losurdo makes sure to emphasize that the dis-emancipation he associates with the rise of liberalism was hardly limited to the colonial fringe. Meanwhile, in the metropole of these liberal Western states, a corresponding disenfranchisement was taking place. Rehearsing the well-known Marxist narrative on the circumstances surrounding the primitive accumulation of capital, Losurdo argues that this was closely tied to the systematic dispossession and deracination of the English and European peasantry through enclosure.12 Many of the peasants uprooted in this fashion went on to look for work in the cities, merging there with the nascent urban proletariat. Losurdo links this economic process symbolically to the political event of the Glorious Revolution.

Losurdo convincingly argues that the racial character of chattel slavery under liberal modernity marked a significant departure from premodern forms of institutionalized slave labor.13 The automatic association of slavery with a particular race or skin color was something new. Moreover, liberalism’s impassioned defense of citizens’ absolute right to enjoy their personal property against the meddlesome influence of the state (i.e., bourgeois property rights) led to the further dehumanization of those who were themselves regarded as property. In other words, Losurdo maintains, in undermining the absolute power of authority wielded by the patrimonial and ecclesiastical state over the commons in traditional societies, liberal thinkers transferred this absolute power of authority to individuals over their own property. Whereas in the former relationship the entire territory belonging to the sovereign or prelate was viewed as simply an extension of his property (or as tributary regions subject to his suzerainty), in the latter relationship property rights were extended throughout the whole of civil society. This leads Losurdo to make some of his most compelling observations. Contrasting the work of the archliberal thinkers Locke and Grotius with the ideas of one of the most outstanding theoreticians of political absolutism, Jean Bodin, Losurdo notes the following: While the former two upheld the slave-owner’s inalienable right to dispose of his human property as he sees fit, Bodin appealed to the authority of both the Church and the Crown — that is, to the First and Second Estates — to step in and place moral and legal limits on the slaveholder’s prerogative.14 This stubborn reluctance on the part of liberal philosophers like Locke and Grotius to sanction any mandate imposed from above that would require an individual to discharge his legal property (in this case, his slaves) was mirrored in the prolonged survival of the “peculiar institution” in the colonies of liberal countries such as England and Holland. Of course, this would by extension include the rebel colony of the former, the United States.15

Passing from the dis-emancipation of both indigenous peoples living in the colonies and the captured slaves who were conveyed unto them, Losurdo goes on to detail the concurrent dis-emancipation then being experienced throughout European society. He traces the formation of a “compulsory workforce” in the urban centers of the West through the extensive displacement and subsequent proletarianization of the European peasantry. This, in turn, took place over the course of the seventeenth century, all the way up through the first half of the nineteenth, as part of the more general transformation of traditional agrarian societies into their modern industrial counterpart. Citing the well-documented expansion of the penal code during this period, Losurdo shows how this entire campaign of expropriation was accompanied, moreover, by a “criminalization of behavior that had hitherto been licit.”16 This only served to compound the already desolate situation in which the former peasantry now found itself, leading to an even greater depopulation of the countryside. Upon arriving in the city, notes Losurdo, families dispossessed in this manner often lived in abject poverty and destitution, forced to take whatever job they could get — no matter how tedious, degrading, or dangerous — in order to survive. The gloss this subject generally receives in Liberalism, however, ends up coming across as somewhat crude and one-sided. Losurdo sees in the related phenomena of massive rural dislocation (the paradigmatic Deleuzoguattarian case of “deterritorialization”) on the one hand and the urban relocation that typically followed (“reterritorialization”) on the other only the further material degradation of those whose lives had once been bound to the soil.17 There is doubtless something to be said for this side of the story, but one of the unfortunate consequences of its overemphasis in the book is that the potentially liberatory dimension of wage-labor fades from view.

Inevitably, Losurdo’s almost exclusive focus on the dis-emancipatory aspects of “the agricultural revolution”18 occasioned by enclosure tends to obscure some of its genuinely progressive, if unforeseen, effects. This would be a welcome corrective, were it not for the numerous works that have already appeared in recent years condemning the historic usurpation of the commons. Nearly all of these newer studies highlight the attendant casualties that came along with economic liberalization. (And this is to say nothing of earlier authors like Marx or E.P. Thompson, who were better able to appreciate the Janus-faced nature of English land deprivation).19 Besides the alleged comparability of these different forms of labor in terms of the respective standards of living they produced, the crux of Losurdo’s argument is that each exercised a dehumanizing influence over those made to perform it. Or at least this is how it appeared to some of the chief proponents of liberalism, claims Losurdo. And to be sure, he manages to compile several disturbing passages from liberals like Locke, Mandeville, and Smith in which they liken workers to horses and other beasts of burden, as well as a selection from a private notebook in which Sieyès refers to wage-laborers as “work machines” [machines de travail] with an almost clinical nonchalance.20 But this sort of language could just as easily reflect these thinkers’ encounter with British and French materialism as it could any overt effort to rob workers of their humanity. One almost recalls here the sensate understanding that Hobbes claimed was “common to Man and Beast” or La Mettrie’s thought-figure of the “machine man” [l’homme machine], for instance.21 In constructing his argument, Losurdo relies rather uncritically on the self-serving testimony of a few authors who drew an unfavorable comparison between the paid labor of workers in industry and the unpaid travails of slaves and serfs in agriculture. As a result, he vacillates on the question of whether or not the move toward compensated, contractual employment actually represented an advance over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it.22 By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another, Losurdo thus fails to recognize the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production. In so doing, he thereby unwittingly underplays the truly epochal and unprecedented nature of the shift that helped usher in the age of capitalism.

The “sacred” and
the “profane”

This brings us to Losurdo’s second major postulate in Liberalism. As mentioned, this latter claim is closely connected to the first, and concerns the manifold “exclusion clauses” that restricted the application of bourgeois rights to certain privileged groups or individuals. Unsurprisingly, the trajectory of Losurdo’s argument here roughly parallels his prior articulation of the double-edged character of liberal emancipation. The running (Agambenesque) metaphor he uses to explain the fluid line of demarcation separating the free from the unfree is cribbed from the old dichotomy of the sacred and the profane, established long ago by Durkheim in his research on religion.23 According to this model, those fortunate enough to live inside the boundaries of this “sacred space” at any given moment can be said to inhabit the “community of the free,” while those who fall outside of its domain are meanwhile relegated to the “profane space” of unfreedom.24 Losurdo’s designation of this privileged group of free and interrelated individuals as belonging to a “community” is by no means innocent, either. In his incisive study on Heidegger and the Ideology of War (1991), Losurdo spells out the exclusivist connotations of belonging to a particular community [the Gemeinschaft or communitas]as opposed to seeing oneself as a single participant in universal society [the Gesellschaft or societas],25 the global citizen of the Kantian cosmopolitismus.26 These categories from his earlier work reappear here in Liberalism, mapped back onto the history he is recording in hindsight. Regardless, this distinction between community and society is fairly germane to the description of modern society, and thus his usage in this context is not wholly without warrant.

Nowhere in the text of Liberalism, however,does he explain why the free should be associated with sanctity or the unfree with profanity. It must be admitted, therefore, that Losurdo’s constant recourse to this analogy ultimately feels forced and overwrought. Though its purpose is perhaps merely illustrative, the whole framework of “sacred” and “profane” reads as a bit stilted. Nevertheless, Losurdo continues, undeterred by this fact, expanding on this hierophanous motif. Only now it comes with reference to common liberal narratives that have been written about its own ideological formation:

Historiography tends to shade into hagiography. I use this term in a technical sense: it involves a discourse completely focused on what, for the community of the free, was the restricted sacred space. It is enough, however briefly, to introduce the profane space (slaves in the colonies and servants in the metropolis) into the analysis, to realize the inadequate, misleading character of the categories (absolute preeminence of individual liberty, anti-statism, individualism) generally used to trace the history of the liberal West.27

Insofar as Losurdo’s Liberalism serves to dispel the pious aura surrounding liberalism’s own account of itself, it can be seen as providing a valuable service. Yet it overstates its case. Such ventures into historical exposé — which simply seek to unearth “shocking revelations” about celebrated thinkers of the past, in order to discredit them and thereby remove the glowing halo from their thought — often possess an almost tabloid quality. Certainly, these thinkers were no saints. Losurdo therefore has every right to indict the various “hagiographies” of liberalism whose only point is to commemorate its great events and beatify its founding figures. And it would no doubt be just as foolish to try and dismiss the biographical information thus brought to light as if it were irrelevant to the configuration of an individual’s thought. Biography cannot be wholly disentangled from ideology.28 Some room must be made, however, for at least a relative degree of autonomy in thought. For to commit the opposite error, by aiming to do nothing more than catch these thinkers red-handed — in all their blatant hypocrisies, bigotries, and condescensions — would be to equally miss the mark. Historiography most assuredly should not be allowed to drift into hagiography. Here it is necessary to heed Losurdo’s warning. But neither should history be reduced to mere iconoclasm.

Moreover, it is unclear from his text whether this division between the “sacred” and the “profane” (the free and the unfree) is actually a necessary and constituent feature of liberalism that obtains transhistorically, or if perhaps, on the contrary, it is maybe just a contingent and transient feature of its historical unfolding. Losurdo often seems to waver on this issue. This is a matter of no small importance, either; depending how one comes down on this point, it is possible to arrive at drastically different conclusions. If Losurdo is suggesting that this binary is somehow intrinsic to liberalism, as a permanent property written into its very concept, then the work of mounting a case against it might be made considerably lighter. But this would be to simply fall back on the old Saussurean cliché, espoused by structuralists and post-structuralists alike, that the identity of any particular individual or group can only be defined oppositionally. The exclusion of certain groups and individuals from universal rights would only be natural. By raising this exclusionary tendency within liberal thought to the point where it becomes viewed as an unchanging, structural component of its ideology, however, it becomes difficult to account for the remarkable elasticity it has demonstrated in accommodating hitherto excluded groups and incorporating them into its fold.

And yet this is often how Losurdo chooses to frame it. In attempting to set its various “exclusion clauses” against the backdrop of a broader longue durée, Losurdo loses sight of the peculiarity of the phenomenon he is examining. At one point, he goes so far as to assign an Abrahamic origin to liberalism’s penchant for circumscribing its universality, writing: “[A]lready within Judaism the exclusivist pathos of the sacred space tended to take the form of a universalism that relied sometimes on the subjugation (or destruction) of the profane, and sometimes on its cooption.”29 Far from being an isolated incident, this instead becomes a recurrent theme invoked throughout Liberalism.30 Indeed, it turns out that this is something of a hobbyhorse for Losurdo. Just taking a cursory glance over the few articles by him that have been rendered into English, one immediately begins to notice familiar allocutions. These largely reflect the political exigencies that existed at the time they were written, however. They tend to crop up mostly in the context of Losurdo’s occasional post-1991 statements of discontent with the United States’ status as the world’s sole enduring superpower,31 as well as in his post-2003 criticisms of US militarism following the invasion of Iraq.32 Such essays can be read as part of an effort to come to terms with the ignominious death of the greatest leftist project of the twentieth century — the final collapse of the Soviet experiment inaugurated in October 191733 — along with the bleak unipolar order that was left in its wake.

But Losurdo takes this argument further in Liberalism. In his view, the entire hubris of American exceptionalism (like that of liberal England before it) harkens back to its unhealthy preoccupation with the Old Testament, as well as its national self-identification with the tribe of Israel. Losurdo maintains that this also provided the impetus that lay behind the famous American “frontier mentality,” embodied by the relentless drive west in pursuit of its “manifest destiny.”34 Moreover, he asserts, the two phenomena share a direct historical relation. The sanctimonious conceit that white America or the West in general has somehow been providentially ordained to spread the liberal-democratic message of freedom and equality to the darker-skinned peoples of the world expresses, at least for Losurdo, nothing other than the residue of its age-old Puritan belief that it belongs among God’s elect.35 Convinced that it has been divinely anointed to this task of economic and political liberalization, in order to “make the world safe for democracy” (as it were), America and other Western liberal powers have sanctioned any number of wars of aggression. How ancient Judaism, colonial Puritanism, and twenty-first century neo-imperialism are all tied to one another is anybody’s guess, however. Their relation to liberal ideology is even more opaque. Even if Losurdo were to posit that liberalism and Puritanism exhibit some fundamental affinity, he would have to ground the former in an aspect of the latter — as Weber did with the “worldly asceticism” of Calvinism and the capitalist work ethic — in order to claim that one gave rise to the other.36

Liberalism, imperialism,
and totalitarianism

The third principal argument at the heart of Losurdo’s Liberalism is simultaneously its most polemical and its most predictable. In many respects, it is simply a variation on Hannah Arendt’s acclaimed thesis on The Origins of Totalitarianism. As such, Losurdo follows Arendt in her general interpretation of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, as well as the horrific crimes they committed, as outcomes of the European colonial experience and its intensification during the age of imperialism. Losurdo makes two notable revisions to Arendt’s account, however. First, he decides not to exempt (as Arendt does) the United States from his analysis of the putative relationship between the violence enacted by liberal colonial administrations during the nineteenth century and the notorious crimes committed by totalitarian dictatorships during the twentieth.37 Just the contrary, asserts Losurdo: the United States might have even been the archetype ofthe racialized “continental empire” to which National Socialism aspired.38 The second main point on which Losurdo deviates from Arendt’s position has to do with her classification of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia under the single rubric of “totalitarianism.”39 In Arendt’s terminology, this category simply denotes the lust for world domination. With the Nazis, the motivating force behind this Wille zur Weltherrschaft was to be found in their explicitly supranational ambitions, while for the Bolsheviks it was their commitment to an international project of revolution.40 Losurdo is correct in his rejection of Arendt’s decidedly facile implication in her book that both Nazism and Bolshevism somehow stem from one unitary totalitarian phenomenon. But he is right for all the wrong reasons. His defense of the USSR against the accusation of totalitarianism, while at times a bit more nuanced, is fueled by the same colorless post-Soviet nostalgia that one finds at CPRF rallies in former Leningrad. This longing for the good old days of Cold War opposition has long since become pathological on the Left.

If one accepts the basic premises of Arendt’s explanation of the roots of twentieth century totalitarianism, then Losurdo’s first emendation to her accountis perfectly appropriate. The United States, to his mind, is just another example in the long line of liberal Western states — along with Britain and Holland — that have sought to establish themselves up as “master-race [or Herrenvolk] democracies.”41 Here again, Losurdo is revisiting a theme that appears elsewhere throughout his work,42 featuring prominently in an essay he wrote on Lenin: “The category of Herrenvolk democracy [commonly used in American historical discourse] can be useful also in explaining the history of the West as a whole.” Not surprisingly, this essay ends up anachronistically portraying Lenin as just another boring, moralistic precursor to latter-day Marxist Third-Worldism, ignoring his constant focus on the necessity of carrying out a revolution in the metropole.43 Losurdo also conveniently forgets here the high esteem in which Lenin held certain aspects of Americanism, a fact that he himself had stressed only a few years prior, in dismissing charges of leftist “anti-Americanism.”44 Once again one finds Losurdo trying to make history dance to the tune of the present. It seems quite likely that the antipathy he displays for ancient Judaism and the early American republic says more about Losurdo’s own au courant political ideology than it does about historical reality. These would then correspond, as one might expect, to his generally shallow and one-sided (though perhaps not completely unfounded) anti-Zionist45 and anti-American worldview. For it is not to defend the structural racism of American society to point out the patent absurdity of Losurdo’s insinuations regarding “the important role that reactionary movements and American racists played by inspiring agitation in Germany that would eventually lead to the rise of Hitler.”46 Nor is it to whitewash the virulent racism and imperialist chauvinism of the so-called “hero of San Juan Hill” to balk at his outrageous claim in Liberalism that “Theodore Roosevelt can calmly be approximated to Hitler.”47

Losurdo, who is otherwise quite perceptive in distinguishing modern from premodern forms of slavery, fails to distinguish between the routine butcheries that occurred in the European colonies abroad during the nineteenth century and the explicitly eliminationist program adopted by fascist regimes in Europe proper during the twentieth. The violence perpetrated against native populations by Western colonial armies stationed overseas, while indisputably brutal, was in most instances carried out in a haphazard and disjointed fashion. By contrast, the violence wrought by the Stoßtruppen (the “stormtroopers” of the SA) and Einsatzgruppen (the SS death squads) in continental Europe was systematic, methodical, and detached. The former can at most be termed “proto-genocidal,” sensu stricto, while the deliberateness of latter qualifies it as full-blown genocide. As recent scholars such as Matthew Fitzpatrick have noted,48 the proto-genocidal practices in the colonies were directed against obviously alien subject-peoples, with their own “exotic” customs and languages as well as immediately apparent “phenotypic” differences, while the genocidal strategies of the Turks and Nazis targeted a population that had to a large extent already become assimilated and naturalized as citizens. Of course, Losurdo is not alone in making this error.49 Arendt makes the same mistake. To Losurdo’s credit, even, he identifies one aspect of liberal society that might well be more closely related to the genocides of the twentieth century — namely, “the violence perpetrated, in the very heart of the capitalistic metropolis, against the poor and outcasts locked in the workhouses.”50 Taking a page from Horkheimer and Adorno in making this observation,51 Losurdo thus underscores a point that remains conspicuously absent in Arendt’s narrative.

Both Losurdo and Arendt, however, leave out one of the defining characteristics of twentieth-century genocides like the Holocaust: the industrialized murder of civilians, the “brutal efficiency” with which the modern forces of production were instrumentalized and then fully unleashed toward the end of extermination. They are therefore unable to comprehend the real and qualitative difference separating events like the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide from previous atrocities, whatever continuities might in all likelihood exist. This is something of which Adorno and Horkheimer, by contrast, were acutely aware. Arendt showed herself to be more astute than Losurdo, however, in discerning the precise periodicity of the phenomena under investigation. More so than Losurdo, she recognized the unprecedented conditions under which imperialism (which she dated as lasting from 1884-1914) and totalitarianism (which she regarded as having begun with Bolshevism and the rise of Italian fascism soon afterward) had both become historically possible. For Arendt, each of these was a product of the ongoing crisis of liberalism and bourgeois society that had played itself out in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the years following 1848. This crisis, respectively, manifested the latent antagonisms in industrial production. Or, as Arendt aptly put it, the classic (i.e., pre-1848) liberal order “had rested on the indifference of the bourgeoisie to politics in general and state finance in particular…[T]his period came to an end with the rise of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century when capitalist business in the form of expansion could no longer be carried out without active political help and intervention by the state.”52 Despite all her shortcomings, Arendt was more attuned to the political subtleties and historical dynamics that she and Losurdo describe. In these lines, she was almost directly paraphrasing some remarks by Rosa Luxemburg, whom Arendt praised for her “brilliant insight into the political structure of imperialism.”53 Already by 1906, Luxemburg observed the way that capitalism had outgrown the liberal pretenses it had formerly maintained: “[L]iberalism as such is now absolutely useless to bourgeois society, [and] has [even] become…a direct impediment to capitalism from other standpoints.”54

Part II: Writing the history of liberalism after the death of the Left

Stalinism and

With respect to Losurdo’s other main bone of contention with Arendt, regarding her categorization of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as “totalitarian,” it is here again necessary to acknowledge that his objection to this interpretive move is quite justifiable. There has been a great deal of literature written on the subject of late, above all by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer,55 that would seem to support Losurdo’s skepticism regarding Arendt’s claim. For not only does this common appellation tend to blur important incongruities in the way these political systems were organized, but it also erroneously suggests that the kinds of violence these regimes visited upon their citizens were of a more or less similar nature. While early on in her book Arendt mentions the non-racial character of the Soviet purges (setting aside, for a moment, the question of Golomodor)56 as compared with the Sho’ah, she thereafter treats the two as essentially the same. Losurdo is, moreover, correct to criticize Arendt for her faulty allegation that the germ of totalitarianism could be found in the writings of Marx himself.57 A similar objection to Arendt’s diagnosis was already raised by Žižek some years ago, adding the caustic notā bene: “[The] elevation of Arendt [into an untouchable authority] is perhaps the clearest sign of the theoretical defeat of the Left.”58 Rather than assign Soviet Russia the same denomination as Nazi Germany (i.e., “totalitarianism”), Losurdo finds another nomenclature to be more accurate — one that places it closer to the racial state of the Jim Crow American South. In contrast to the Herrenvolk democracy of the United States, he characterizes Nazi Germany as a “Herrenvolk dictatorship.”

Of course, there is an ulterior reason for Losurdo’s adamance in clarifying this point. As it so happens, he is quite committed to the rehabilitation of both Stalin as an historical personality and Stalinism as a political legacy. Though there is no English edition of his lengthier disquisition on the subject, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera [Stalin: History and Critics of a Black Legend], its arguments are recapitulated in several of his essays that have appeared in translation. Losurdo is emphatic in insisting that this period (what Trotskii referred to as “Thermidor”) is not “a history we need to be ashamed of.”59 While he does not dismiss the mountain of archival documentation corroborating Stalin’s “excesses” out of hand, he nevertheless continues to entertain arguments that in the final analysis verge on casuistry. Held up against the other world leaders who participated in the Yalta conference, Roosevelt and Churchill, he maintains that the Soviet premier fares rather well: “Marxist theory, even in Stalin, was superior to the ideas held by even these respected exponents of the bourgeois world.”60 Other liberal statesmen are dragged into the mix as well, to be weighed against Stalin on the scales of history — Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson. It is difficult to describe these arguments as anything other than exercises in moral equivalence, however. In Losurdo’s view, the GULag archipelago was no worse than the detention centers built in America under the McCarran act of the 1950s or the internment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry under FDR’s watch.61

Moreover, Losurdo maintains, the most extreme measures Stalin implemented were just desperate responses to “the permanently exceptional circumstances” under which the Soviet Union was forced to operate following the October Revolution. The USSR found itself in a hopelessly backwards and isolated situation.62 “Was the revolution begun in 1929 necessary?” Losurdo muses. “Stalin himself had no doubts; indeed, he considered a new aggression by the capitalist world to be inevitable. It was a widespread opinion at that time.”63 For all their wanton terror and coerciveness, Losurdo reads Stalin’s policies during this time as attempts to bring normality to what was otherwise an extraordinary state of affairs. Again, there is something to this line of argumentation. It is accurate to point out, when all is said and done, that one “cannot separate the history of the USSR from its international context.”64 Losurdo’s other claim about the dictator, blaming the overwhelmingly bad reputation that Stalin has garnered in the West on the “black legend” supposedly cooked up by Khrushchev for the ⅩⅩth Party Congress of the CPSU in 1956, is somewhat harder to defend. Siding with Mao in his disapproval of “de-Stalinization” in the Soviet Union, Losurdo reproaches Stalin’s heir for his revisionism, accusing him of “demonizing those who preceded him in holding power.”65 The unintended irony at work in the following lines cannot be lost on anyone familiar with the judicial travesties that occurred during the Great Purges: “On [the] basis [of Khrushchev’s secret report], a truly grotesque trial [!!] against Stalin develops.”66 In Losurdo’s opinion, the image of the historical Stalin has been warped beyond recognition both by Khrushchev’s defamatory speech on the one hand, and Cold War propaganda on the other. While he does not seek to wholly exonerate the “Kremlin highlander” for his indiscretions, Losurdo rejects the incidence of mortality reported in Western statistics as “greatly exaggerated.”

However distasteful his sympathies for Stalinism might strike us, it is important that Losurdo’s arguments not be dismissed solely on these grounds. There is nothing more quintessentially Stalinist than to impeach an author for his ideological affinities alone. If anything, these feelings of loyalty to the miserable and debased Soviet state-bureaucratic apparatus are symptomatic of a deeper problem on the Left: the abdication of its critical and historical responsibility to assess its own failures and shortcomings, both in theory and in practice. “[P]roletarian revolutions…engage in perpetual self-criticism, always stopping in their own tracks,” recorded Marx, in a statement perhaps more prescriptive than descriptive. “[T]hey return to what is apparently complete in order to begin it anew, and deride with savage brutality the inadequacies, weak points, and pitiful aspects of their first attempts.”67 Faced with the capitulation of German Social-Democracy, Luxemburg echoed this sentiment: “Self-criticism, cruel, unsparing criticism that goes to the very root of the evil is life and breath for the proletarian movement. The catastrophe into which the world has thrust the socialist proletariat is an unexampled misfortune for humanity.”68 Despite the seeming unequivocality of this injunction, Losurdo takes pains to distinguish “self-criticism” from “self-contempt”:

[In spite of] any seeming parallel, self-critique and self-contempt are contradictory attitudes. Self-criticism, with all of its sharpness and particularly its radicalism, expresses a consciousness of the necessity to examine one’s own history; self-contempt represents a cowardly running away from this history and away from the ideological and cultural struggle that is expressed in this history. If the foundation of self-criticism is the revival of Communist identity, then self-contempt is another word for capitulation and the denial of an autonomous identity.69

At first blush, this would appear to be a perfectly valid amendment to the Left’s tradition of ruthless (self-)critique. Quite honestly, it could even fulfill an important prophylactic measure, as a safeguard against the temptation for leftists to turn to neoconservatism out of disgust with the general decrepitude of radical politics today. Indeed, the pattern of leftists succumbing to this temptation has become all too familiar in recent years. So the way that Losurdo sets up this opposition is, in theory, fairly unproblematic. And yet the way he implements it is, in practice, extremely precarious. Losurdo refuses to reflect on the reality of the Left’s defeat. He cannot bring himself to call a spade a spade, and is therefore either unwilling or unable to bear witness to the calamity, carried over from the past, that keeps piling wreckage before his feet.70

and defeat

Confronted with the dissolution, first of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union in rapid succession, Losurdo seems to default to a state of denial: “Today the thesis of the ‘failure’ of ‘real, existing socialism’ is so undisputed that not even the Left opposes it.”71 Of course, all this begs the question of how a sober analyst ought to regard the results of revolutionary struggles in the twentieth century. The great buildings and monuments of the USSR stand in ruin or disrepair. Capitalism reigns triumphant in Beijing. The lonely island of Cuba remains under the iron grip of Castroism, the last holdout of strongman socialism. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, which was briefly a cause célèbre for Western anti-imperialists, has turned out to be (to nobody’s surprise) just another wretched petro-dictatorship, only this time with a “postmodern Bonapartist” at the reins.72 It would be difficult to construe any of this as successful, especially given Marxism’s grandiose political aspiration of freeing all humanity.

Granted, Losurdo is justified in pointing to some of great feats achieved by socialist governments in their day — granting suffrage early to women, the expulsion of imperial powers from their territories, the victory over fascism. Credit must be given where credit is due. Yet this is a far cry from what any of these revolutionary undertakings had set out to achieve. At certain points, Losurdo seems ready to acknowledge the seriousness of the decline of the Left in the twentieth century. In a 1996 article on “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution,” for example, he reflects:

Did the October Revolution fail? Without doubt, the aims pursued and proclaimed by it were not achieved. Let one simply think of Lenin and the leaders of the Communist International, for whom the worldwide Soviet republic seemed already looming on the horizon, with the final disappearance of classes, states, nations, the market, and religions. At no time has this goal been approximated; there has not even been any success in heading in that direction.

Losurdo invariably follows these moments of honest appraisal with apologetics, however. “Are we therefore faced with a total failure?” he asks rhetorically. By way of illustration, he offers a somewhat puerile metaphor: “In reality, the gap between programs and results is characteristic of every revolution…The fate of Christopher Columbus, who searched for India [but instead] discovered America, can serve as a metaphor for comprehending the objective dialectics of revolutionary processes.”73 That the results obtained would not match the original goals envisioned is not unusual. But if the Left is to be imagined as an explorer who has set out upon the high seas of world-history in search of freedom, then it would not be an exaggeration that it has been adrift for some time now, having long ago left terra firma behind. To borrow an image from Kant, whatever is still left of the Left is today “surrounded by a broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion, where many a fog bank and rapidly melting iceberg pretend to be new lands.”74

No, of this there can be no doubt: the Left has fallen far short of its stated goals. The conceptual barrier that Losurdo tries to erect between “failure” and “defeat” thus ends up feeling slightly disingenuous, though yet again his instincts are not utterly misplaced. “A ‘defeat’ is not a ‘failure,’” the Italian historian insists. “[W]hile the latter concept denotes a completely negative conclusion, the former is partially negative; it makes reference to a specific historical context and refuses to suppress the reality of a few countries…that continue to refer to socialism.”75 True enough. And Losurdo’s motives for making this distinction are not meritless, either. For if one were to conclude from an examination of the Left’s historic failures that it is forever doomed to fail, there would be no good reason to contemplate them any further. The dream of revolution could then be relinquished without guilt or suffering a single pang of conscience — all action surrendered before the sheer futility of the endeavor. And yet, if one is interested in transforming the world as it presently exists, then it is necessary all the same to understand the present as “a present that has been determined by the history of defeat and failure on the Left”76 (without, for that reason, sliding into defeatism). It would be delusory, if not even dishonest, to treat the cumulative defeats of the twentieth century as if they amounted to nothing more than a series of temporary setbacks.

In light of all this, it comes as a truly jaw-dropping boast of counterintuition — even for a dialectician — when Losurdo scoffs at the very idea that the Left has at all “failed” in its historic mission. “Even more amazing [than] the success of the concept of ‘failure’ [amongst liberals],” he writes in disbelief, “[is the currency it has attained] among the Left.”77 Such a conception is far too narrow, he argues, even “grossly Eurocentric.”78 But is it here really necessary to repeat Žižek’s call, now over a decade old, for “a leftist appropriation of the European political legacy”?79 Has his plea for a new Eurocentrism gone unanswered? Objecting to some of the cruder ways that “modernization theory” has been formulated, in which the political and economic development of all countries follow a more or less uniform path, Losurdo finds himself agreeing with the popular postmodern premise of “multiple modernities,” a pluralistic alter-narrative. Sometimes, Losurdo even seems to be aware of this confluence of opinion: “Although the way that postmodernists challenge the idea of progress is somewhat contradictory, actual progress is really no more than a myth.”80 Insofar as progress is conceived as an inevitability, then certainly, progress is no more than a mythology. But the obverse of this is also true. “[T]he idea of progress,” Adorno reminds us, “is just as much inherently anti-mythological.”81 Actual progress, he writes, must be measured by the conscious achievement of human ends. The false notion of progress, by contrast, is measured by the unconscious accumulation of means (i.e., technologies), for this represents only the material potential for progress. To maintain that progress as such is impossible, however, is to forsake the task of politics — the task of changing the world for the better. Still, the abandonment of the concept of progress by someone like Losurdo may only serve as a shield guarding against the far deeper and more unsettling revelation: the nearly ubiquitous fact of historic and political regression. The renunciation by some leftists of even the possibility of progress attests to their inability to face up to the reality of regress.

The denialism that Losurdo exhibits toward the dwindling prospects for revolutionary transformation over the last hundred years or so requires that he accentuate the few bright spots of past attempts to radically change the world. “Even with regard to the Stalinist era,” he reminds his readership, “horror was only one side of the coin.” He points out the incontrovertible success of literacy campaigns, heightened industrial productivity, and an increase in upward mobility for those coming from modest backgrounds82 (of course, he leaves out the fact that many of the newly available positions that were opening up had been vacated only recently, by “bourgeois specialists” who had been imprisoned or shot). When there is no silver lining to be found within the whirlwind, Losurdo seeks to explain these heinous acts by tracing them back to some mitigating factor or set of extenuating circumstances.83 Trading in one faulty interpretation (Wittfogel’s account of the Soviet system as a mode of “Asiatic despotism”)84 for another, Losurdo advances the proleptic suggestion that “[t]he Stalinist terror [usually dated from 1936-1939] stemmed less from Asian traditions than from the totalitarianism that began to spread worldwide with the outbreak of the Second World War [only from 1939 in Europe].”85 Though there can be no doubt that authoritarianism was globally on the rise at that time, this should not at all be used to excuse the monstrosity of the Stalinist regime. Elsewhere, Losurdo similarly tries to redirect some of the blame for the “killing fields” in Cambodia from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, again in order to defend the honor of “actually existing socialism”:

Also contributing to the discrediting of socialism has been the Cambodian tragedy, the starting point of which was a brilliant national-liberation struggle. Pol Pot’s attempt to establish a communist society without markets and without money ended in a horrible massacre. It would be wrong, however, to hold the leaders of the Khmer Rouge exclusively responsible.86

Losurdo’s attitude toward post-Maoist China is yet another case in point. Though many who had been supportive of the People’s Republic regarded the country’s reintroduction of market relations as a betrayal of the 1949 revolution, the Italian philosopher applauds the reforms of Deng Xiaoping for their unfailing pragmatism. Deng is even credited with discovering a “third way” by which backward communist nations can survive isolation, an escape route bypassing the dilemma between Trotskyist internationalism and Stalinist “Socialism in One Country.”87 Warning that “[t]o speak of a restoration of capitalism in China would be [to view] the problem too superficially,” Losurdo insists that the CCP has succeeded in striking a balance between liberalizing the nation’s economy on the one hand and managing to still represent the political interests of the proletariat on the other.88 The move away from the “hard” Maoist line was important, Losurdo affirms, but it was at the same time imperative that it not come at the price of Mao’s prestige in the eyes of the people. Adopting the Carlylean line, that “[h]eroes are necessary for the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy,” Losurdo stresses the vital need to maintain the public’s fond memories of “the Great Helmsman” — all while dismantling his political agenda. And unlike Stalin’s successor in the Soviet Union, “Deng Xiaoping understood …how to push along…change without imitating Khrushchev’s model of de-Stalinization …The enormous historical contributions that Mao made…were not to be forgotten.”89 It could be argued, of course, that Khrushchev betrayed his predecessor only in word while remaining loyal to him in deed, whereas Deng remained loyal to his predecessor only in word while betraying him in deed. Nevertheless, Losurdo judges post-Maoist China to be faithful enough to its original revolutionary goals to still be regarded as “the center of the struggle of colonial and former colonial peoples.”90 In contrast to many of his leftist peers in the West, he continues to defend the Chinese Communist Party leadership from the criticisms that have been leveled at it following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The pro-democracy students and demonstrators gunned down in the June Fourth Incident are maligned as agents of the US State Department.91 But such is the sort of dubious alibi that Losurdo must provide to the Community Party elite and state capitalist thugs dispatched in order to quell the uprising, borne out of a pathological unwillingness to acknowledge historical regression.

Liberals, conservatives, radicals

To address this “series of embarrassing questions” to Losurdo’s general political outlook is only to apply the procedure he develops in Liberalism to his own work.92 Despite his reluctance to “demonize” figures like Stalin, Beria, or Mao (despite their incontestable “errors” and “miscalculations”),93 Losurdo has no qualms impugning major thinkers from the liberal canon. Concurring with Arendt’s account of the long prehistory that led up to the biological racism of the latter half of the nineteenth century, he reviews some of the ideology’s foremost liberal representatives. Following her cue, Losurdo includes leading historical personages such as Arthur de Gobineau, Benjamin Disraeli, Houston Stuart Chamberlain, and Cecil Rhodes.94 Losurdo, for his part, takes the liberty of appending the names of Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun, John Stuart Mill, and Theodore Roosevelt to this list of eminent bigots.95 Still, the liberal credentials of any of these figures, apart from perhaps Disraeli and Mill, are highly debatable. Rhodes had ties to the Liberal Party in England, undeniably, but often found himself opposing its policies.96 Some of Losurdo’s other selections are even more transparently invidious. The inclusion of de Gobineau amongst these liberals, for example, is swiftly rationalized — slipped in en passant — on the flimsy grounds that some of his racial ideas seem to be faintly echoed in the works of de Tocqueville and Disraeli, albeit in a different “idiom.”97 Overlooked, then, are de Gobineau’s most brazenly obvious characteristics: his royalist political bent, blue-blooded pomposity, and supercilious contempt for the common man — in short, his aristocratic anti-liberalism.

One of the book’s most provocative claims, of course, regards Losurdo’s placement of Calhoun in the camp of liberalism. Reviewers as different as Richard Seymour,98 Ed Rooksby,99 and Nick Serpe100 have found this interpretation puzzling. Their suspicions are far from being groundless, either. Early on, Losurdo almost seems to be justifying his inclusion of the slaveholding senator alongside other liberals on the basis that Calhoun’s books have been reissued by the neoliberal printing press, Liberty Fund.101 Similarly, the way Losurdo sets up his narrative with respect to Edmund Burke’s purported liberalism, both in Liberalism as well as his earlier research on Heidegger,102 must also strike the reader as a little odd. Nominating the famous English archconservative as the prime representative for “the liberal tradition” is unorthodox, to say the least. This is a fact of which Losurdo is fully aware, however. And the case he presents in anticipating his critics’ objections is better than most have been willing to give it credit. Both Burke and Calhoun were staunch defenders of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, respectively, as well as the bicameral legislatures, electoral systems, and private property laws they set in place — all hallmarks of classical liberalism.103

Losurdo therefore rejects the common portrait offered of Burke and Calhoun as pure reactionaries and traditionalists. To be fair, the former is quite often unjustly caricatured in this way. There was, nevertheless, a reason why the conservative British statesman was so despised by liberal partisans like Jefferson and Paine, both fellow travelers of the French Revolution. This was due in no small part to the high regard in which Burke held the “pedigree” and “native dignity” of venerable social institutions,104 and his consequent declaration that civil society is “the offspring of convention,” and hence that “convention must be its law.”105 Likewise, some of Calhoun’s most stirring speeches — upholding the inviolability of individual property rights against government intrusions, as well as the primacy of state prerogatives over federal supremacy — are unmistakably indebted to the liberal tradition. The most damning arguments against labeling Calhoun a liberal, however, come from the incomparable Richard Hofstadter, who contemptuously referred to him as “the Marx of the master class.” “Not in the slightest,” wrote Hofstadter, “was [Calhoun] concerned with minority rights as they are chiefly of interest to the modern liberal mind — the rights of dissenters to express unorthodox opinions, of the individual conscience against the State, least of all of ethnic minorities.”106 Hofstadter’s judgment is categorical: “Calhoun was, after all, an intense reactionary.”107 This judgment is all the harder for Losurdo to discount, moreover, given his heavy reliance on Hofstadter throughout the text of Liberalism.108

In the meantime, strong counter-examples, whose admittance might cast doubt on the legitimacy of some of the book’s grosser generalizations (like the liberal anti-imperialist Hobson), are written off as “anomalous.”109 Hume, Tucker, Johnson, Millar, and Garrison — some of liberalism’s most laudable exponents — are given relatively short shrift. While Losurdo makes sure to mention their abolitionist sympathies, this is often only in order to call attention to the fact that the prejudices of their liberal contemporaries cannot be so easily excused. Early on in the book, the author decries the “widespread apologia” for the “heroes” extolled by the liberal tradition, which claim that they simply fell prey to the prevailing ideologies of their day (racism, classism, sexism). To try to absolve them on these grounds, Losurdo contends, amounts to nothing less than a form of “vulgar historicism” and the “repression of the paradox of liberalism.”110 And quite honestly, this line of defense is all too often thoughtlessly trotted out. But the Italian scholar is uneven in his criticism of key liberals; he spares his favorite figures from the scrutiny he applies so rigorously to others. Writers who are more to Losurdo’s taste receive preferential treatment. The specific set of criteria used to evaluate a given thinker depends in large part on whether the author in question is judged to be a liberal or a radical. Without a doubt, this is one of the book’s most crucial (and widely disputed)111 distinctions. Losurdo tries to immunize certain philosophers against the charges he raises against liberal ideology, but Seymour has noted, this is accomplished only “by cordoning off some liberals as ‘radicals.’”112

According to the meaning Losurdo gives it in Liberalism, “what defines radicalism is precisely the argument against any claim by a particular ethnic or social group to pose as ‘master race.’”113 Radicalism’s other defining characteristic, he asserts, is its “appeal to a revolution from below by victims of the institution it was intended to abolish.”114 In Losurdo’s account, radical political currents first emerged in revolutionary France out of a feeling of dissatisfaction with the British and American social models that had been shaped predominantly by bourgeois liberals. He enumerates quite a few forerunners as antecedents to radicalism, however. Among the liberal authors Losurdo inserts into “the process of French radicalism’s formation and development” is Denis Diderot.115 To some degree, the thing that recommends Diderot most highly for the title of radical in the book is the harsh rebuke of European colonialism he coauthored with Guillaume Thomas Raynal.116 What Losurdo leaves out, however, is that their criticisms of the way the Europeans (particularly the Spanish) conducted themselves in the New World were made precisely on the basis of liberal-bourgeois property rights and appropriative norms: “An uninhabited and deserted country is the only one which can be appropriated. The first well-attested discovery [is] a capture of legitimate possession.”117

The other major thinker usually pegged as a liberal who Losurdo still seems intent on rebranding as a radical is Immanuel Kant.118 Here again it is never explained how Kant transcends liberalism, exactly. In his famed essay on Perpetual Peace, which Losurdo cites, Kant optimistically forecasts that “the spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war.”119 Nowhere does this depart from the doctrine of free trade preached by classic liberal economists like Smith. At other points, Kant praises highly “the principle of liberals who adapt to the principles of others,” approximating a position that would later be taken up by liberals like Benjamin Constant in the nineteenth century and Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth.120 Even beyond the question of Kant’s status as a liberal or a radical, however, Losurdo’s favoritism comes through in the way he passes over in silence the occasional (but no less shocking) racist utterances made by “the Old Jacobin.”121 This is a leniency he seldom grants to liberals.

Besides Kant and Diderot, Losurdo takes on a yet more ambitious task in his earlier book on Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, where he attempts to paint even the late Hegel as a radical. In this survey, which is quite commendable in certain other respects, he poses the following question: “Given that he is neither a conservative-reactionary nor a liberal, should Hegel be considered a revolutionary?”122 Challenging the preponderant views of Hegel held by Marx,123 Engels,124 and Lukács,125 Losurdo unflinchingly answers this question in the affirmative. What qualifies as revolutionary for Losurdo proves a bit disappointing, however, as the characterization he offers of the great German philosopher is one of drab banality — a “banausic, plebeian Hegel,” as he phrases it.126 Anyone even slightly acquainted with Hegel’s more grandiloquent passages and sublime metaphysical flights of fancy from his system will no doubt be shocked to learn was the case. Even if this were in fact true, however, plebeianism should not be taken as a sign that liberalism or bourgeois society has been transcended. Marx recognized that the plebeian moment in the French Revolution aimed only to hasten the realization of bourgeois society. At this point, “[t]he proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either [no] interests separate from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes,” Marx recorded in 1848. “Therefore, where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in 1793 and 1794, they fought only for the attainment of the aims of the bourgeoisie, even if not in the manner of the bourgeoisie. All French terrorism was nothing but a plebeian way of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, absolutism, feudalism, and philistinism.”127

On this note, there is one last piece of history in Losurdo’s narrative that deserves to be mentioned here. This time it is not an historical personality that Losurdo is attempting to annex to the “radical” tradition, but rather an historical event: the French Revolution. More specifically, Losurdo wants to claim 1793-1794 for radicalism. He is more or less ready to concede the year 1789 — what he calls the Revolution’s “liberal inception”128 — to the camp of liberalism. Losurdo tracks down the origins of French radicalism to 1791, when tensions began to rise between the newly founded Republic and its liberal forebears in England and the United States.129 While liberals around the world had at first shown enthusiasm for the revolutionary proceedings in France, Losurdo suggests that they later recoiled in horror at the most radical phase the Revolution — the Terror. Still, the facts cry out against this interpretation. Why did Paine, for example, who Losurdo clearly saw as a liberal, continue to offer such passionate support for the revolutionary government even after being imprisoned by Robespierre at the height of the Terror?130 Why would he in 1798 propose that France launch an invasion of liberal England by sea, believing it to be an outpost of reaction?131 The Jacobins were, as Eric Hobsbawm perceptively noted, simply the most revolutionary section of the liberal bourgeoisie.132 Trotskii viewed the Jacobins as the culmination of liberal ideology: “What gave liberalism its charm if not the traditions of the Great French Revolution? At what other period did bourgeois democracy rise to such a height and kindle such a great flame in the hearts of the people as during the period of the Jacobin, sans-culotte, terrorist, Robespierrian democracy of 1793?”133

The “national question” and
the “woman question”

Two glaring lacunae hang over Losurdo’s narrative in Liberalism. These can be usefully disaggregated into a pair of problems that historically tormented both liberal and Marxist discourse: 1.) the “national question,” and 2.) the “woman question.” Losurdo, at various points in his œuvre, has addressed each of these issues, so their absence in this later work may partially excused. Still, these topics are so inextricably intertwined with the greater history of liberalism that they are perhaps worth reiterating here.

Undertheorized in the text, first of all, is the role that the rise of nationalism played in carving out the “sacred space” of the national (or folk) community — what would later become the Volksgemeinschaft popularized by the Nazis. Nationalism goes virtually unmentioned in Losurdo’s account of Liberalism. Lost, then, is the patriotic particularity that emerged opposite Enlightenment universality here at the outset of the eighteenth century. The modern epoch was heralded by the twin birth of nationalism alongside cosmopolitanism. For just as surely as the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the world market made the production and consumption of all countries cosmopolitan (i.e., excursively), so also did “the revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism” create the conditions undergirding the “imagined community” of the homeland or patria (i.e., recursively).134 That the concepts of nationhood and nationality would attain theoretical expression only in the mid-eighteenth century, from the pens of writers such as Herder and Rousseau, was hardly a fortuitous event. It coincided, rather, with the self-assertion of the Third Estate. “[T]he Third Estate is always identical to the idea of a nation,” declared Sieyès.135 This identification of the “nation” with the Third Estate of commoners, to the exclusion of the First Estate of clerics and the Second Estate of aristocrats, perhaps explains the Austro-Marxist Karl Renner’s remark in his 1899 tract, “State and Nation,” that

[o]nce a certain degree of European development has been reached, the linguistic and cultural communities of peoples, having silently matured throughout the centuries, emerge from the world of passive existence as peoples[,]…become conscious of themselves as a force with a historical destiny[,]…[and] demand control over the state, as the highest available instrument of power, and strive for their political self-determination. The birthday of the political idea of the nation and the birth-year of this new consciousness, is 1789, the year of the French Revolution.136

It is therefore necessary to stress the radical novelty of the nation as the basic unit of solidarity within a commonwealth.137 Nationalism is not at all identical to provincialism or parochialism; it superseded these more primitive communitarian forms. “The concept of the nation is a late arrival,” observed Adorno. “[I]t was alien to the Middle Ages.”138 This was, in fact, likely an insight he gleaned from a famous speech by the French liberal Ernest Renan delivered in 1882, addressing the question, “What is a Nation?” “Nations… are something fairly new in history,” Renan explained. “Antiquity was unfamiliar with them; Egypt, China, and ancient Chaldea were in no way nations.”139 Indeed, the abstract notion of a “people” — i.e., a populus or Volk linked to one another through geography, language, or common traditions and enclosed within defined borders — was nowhere to be found in Europe during the age of feudalism.140 At this historical moment, however, in its unifying capacity, nationalism actually served an eminently progressive function in dissolving the feudal bonds of fealty and vassalage,141 and along with them the kingdoms and fiefdoms that had formed during the medieval era. In buttressing the temporal power of the state in its struggle against the spiritual power of the church, moreover, nationalism also contributed to the gradual secularization of society. Longstanding loyalties now had to be reprioritized: One was a Frenchman or an Englishman before he was a Catholic or a Protestant. Sacred duty came to be replaced by civic or patriotic duty (though now and then they were combined as “service to God and country”).

In fact, this might be the most plausible basis for Losurdo’s adoption of the whole apparatus of the “sacred” and “profane.” If his interpretation of this binary holds true, then perhaps the sacred character of “the community of the free” owes to the redirection of the spiritual energies of a people from religion to the nation. Losurdo’s own prior work on the ultranationalist fetishization of the untilled earth under Nazism (as “sacred soil” or heiliger Boden) might even lend credence to this hypothesis.142 This would again seem to be confirmed by his genealogical reading of the Nazis’ love for “community” (or Gemeinschaft) as a result of their encounter with Burke’s thought. Losurdo uses this as the starting point for his genealogy descending from liberalism to fascism. That Burke, the harbinger of counterrevolution, would be among the first to set forth the hereditary principle of nationality is no accident.143 As Eric Hobsbawm has perceptively noted,144 the concept of the “nation” had undergone a subtle shift of emphasis between the period of revolutionary liberalism (1780-1830) and the ensuing period of reactionary liberalism (1830-1880) that set in. Likewise, Adorno held that starting in the eighteenth century, the idea of nationality or nationhood “was defined as a sort of class concept. ‘The nation’ became synonymous with the notables.” During its revolutionary tenure, the theory of “the nation” that was then promoted by liberal ideology contained none of the ethnic145 or linguistic connotations it would later acquire.146 (Otto Bauer once characterized this split between the ethnic and linguistic bases of nationalism as the distinction that separates a “community of nature” based on common descent versus a “community of culture” based on common conventions).147 The “people” belonging to a nation were not necessarily bound to one another by blood relations, religious affiliation, or even a shared language. This was quite different from “the conceptions of nation and nation-state as seen by the ideologists of the era of triumphant bourgeois liberalism: say from 1830 to 1880.”148 To put it differently, the far more conservative concept of the nation supplied by the liberal bourgeoisie once in power reflected the involutions of liberal ideology itself, its inability to rationally justify capitalism’s continued existence after the moment of 1848, signaled by its exhausted overtures to the dumb authority of tradition. By 1880 (or thereabouts), liberal ideology had inflated nationalism to such a degree that the latter was then able to persist long after the former had become obsolete.

The apparent link between nationality and quasi-religious fervor is reinforced, albeit indirectly, by several statements by Losurdo on the unexpected staying power exhibited by communitarian ideologies such as religion or the nation. Losurdo is more charitable toward religion than most self-identifying Marxists. In Liberalism, the Italian theorist is clearly more sympathetic toward Christian fundamentalist abolitionism than he is toward (supposedly) liberal defenders of slavery like John C. Calhoun.149 He has also in the past praised Fidel Castro for the “wisdom” of his remark that socialists have failed to properly account for the continued hold that religious and national communities would continue to exercise over the hearts of men:

Not so very long ago Fidel Castro attempted to…evaluate these issues and came to this remarkable conclusion: “We socialists have committed the following error: we have underestimated the power of nationalism and religion.” (Here one should remember that religion in particular can form an essential element of national identity, as in countries like Poland and Ireland. Today we might say the same about the Islamic world). Unable to acknowledge and respect national peculiarities because of an abstract and aggressive “internationalism,” Brezhnev’s openly chauvinistic and hegemonic theory of the “international dictatorship of the proletariat” came to pass, which resulted in limiting the sovereignty of countries officially allied with the USSR.150

Considering the centrality of the national question in Losurdo’s other works, its palpable absence in Liberalism becomes even more curious. Nationalism’s problematic place in the history of liberal thought is doubtless a factor. Losurdo’s elision of the connection between the chauvinism of the liberal concept of a “community of the free” and patriotic sentiment is made all the more striking in light of the importance he assigns to national liberation movements in the present struggle against capitalism. It is possible, however, that this omission can be traced to his desire to rehabilitate Third World nationalism as a potentially liberatory force resisting imperialist expansion. Indeed, in Losurdo’s reading of Lenin, the great Russian revolutionary’s most enduring contribution to radical thought consisted in the way that he addressed the national question.151 “[T]oday, even more than yesterday,” avers Losurdo, “globalization is not at all a process without conflicts or one that cancels the importance of the national question.”152

That this tendency to focus in on problems of national identity and self-determination is a typically Stalinist myopia is well known — though this stance has even been adopted by a number of Trotskyist groupings lately. But the direct influence of Stalin on Losurdo here is substantiated by the latter’s approving citation of various statements made by the former on the national question.153 Against the danger of a return to Trotskii’s “utopian” commitment to world revolution, Losurdo therefore warns that “[t]here appears in certain sections of the Communist movement an unrealistic internationalism with the tendency to brush off the different national identities as pure prejudice. This kind of ‘universalism’ is not able to respect special qualities and differences.”154 Losurdo’s reluctance to criticize the nationalistic prejudices that exist in political liberalism almost surely derives in part from his defense of nationalism (under the guise of anti-colonialism)155 in other contexts. In another article, on “Revolution, Nation, and Peace,” Losurdo characterizes the promise Trotskii made after signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk — in pledging that the Red Army would come to the aid of revolutionary struggles abroad once the situation in Russia had stabilized — as “a policy of national oppression and even of plunder of a colonial kind.” Even in pursuing a strategy of world revolution, Losurdo seems to suggest, the armies of international socialism must be careful not to supersede the “inviolable” limits of national autonomy or state sovereignty. Losurdo maintains that “Lenin himself, usually so lucid a mind,” was swept in by the overzealous internationalism of 1919.156 Still worse, Losurdo contends, was Trotskii’s position. “After…having achieved victory on the wave of the struggle for peace,” argues Losurdo, “the Revolution of October is invoked [by Trotskii] as an instrument to legitimate a revolutionary expansion policy that does not respect the boundaries between…States and nations.”157

Moving on to the second major lacuna in Liberalism, involving the exclusion of women, Jennifer Pitts has parenthetically remarked upon the fact that “perhaps tellingly, there are almost no women in the book: Germaine de Staël and Hannah Arendt alone come in for passing mentions.”158 Indeed, the dearth of women authors in Losurdo’s text is telling of a deeper problem: the denial of liberal rights to roughly half of humanity throughout most of its history. Nor is Pitts the only reviewer to have noticed his silence on this matter.159 Losurdo devotes only a single page to the examination of women’s subjugation under liberal society.160 Whereas his silence on the “national question” might well have been a conscious evasion, however, his silence on the “woman question” is above suspicion. Losurdo already substantially dealt with the issue in his untranslated work on Democracy and Bonapartism. But examples of his writing where he touches on the plight of women appear in English translation, as well: “In the West as a whole, the most prominent clause of exclusion is that against women.”161 Given the prominence that Losurdo himself attributes to the traditional exclusion of women from the rights enjoyed by the rest of the “community of the free,” it probably bore repeating (that is, beyond one meager page) in Liberalism. Either way, the summary treatment the subject receives here is perhaps excusable in light of his prior work.

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

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

Part IV: 1848

Socialism or

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 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

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 history233 — 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?


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.
51 “The rulers sought to shield the bourgeois world from the flood of naked violence, which now has broken over Europe…Previously only the poor and savages had been exposed to the untrammeled force of the capitalist elements.” Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2002). Pg. 67.
52 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Pg. 15.
53 Ibid., pg. 148.
54 Luxemburg, Rosa. Reform and Revolution. Translated by Integer [pseudonym]. The Essential Rosa Luxemburg. (Haymarket Books. Chicago, IL: 2008). Pg. 87.
55 Fitzpatrick, Sheila and Geyer, Michael. Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2009).
56 “[The] arbitrariness of terror [in Russia] is not even limited by racial differentiation, while the old class categories have long-since been discarded, so that anybody in Russia may suddenly become a victim of the police terror.” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Pg. 6.
57 Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Pgs. 32, 34-37, 52.
58 In so doing, he argues, “the Left has accepted the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (‘democracy’ vs. ‘totalitarianism,’ etc.).” Žižek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions into the (Mis)use of a Notion. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2002). Pgs. 2-3.
59 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pgs. 481-483.
60 Ibid., pg. 484.
61 Ibid., pgs. 479-480.
62 Ibid., pg. 480.
63 Losurdo, Domenico. “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution: Historical Materialism and the Analysis of Revolutions.” Translated by John Riser. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 9, № 1: 1996). Pgs. 80-81.
64 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 479.
65 Ibid., pg. 496.
66 Losurdo, Domenico. “History of the Communist Movement: Failure, Betrayal, or Learning Process?” Translated by Hanna Gidora. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 16, № 1: Jan 31, 2003). Pg. 41.
67 Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Pg. 104.
68 Luxemburg, Rosa. “The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social-Democracy.” Translated by Dave Hollis. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. (Monthly Review Press. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 314.
69 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 459.
70 Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pg. 392.
71 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 33.
72 Torres, Marco. “The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution.” The Platypus Review. (№ 25. July 9th, 2010). Pg. 2.
73 Losurdo, “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution.” Pg. 66.
74 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 354.
75 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 55.
76 Cutrone, Chris. “Vicissitudes of Historical Consciousness and Possibilities for Emancipatory Politics Today.”
The Platypus Review. (№ 1: November 1st, 2007). Pg. 1.
77 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 38.
78 “[T]he contemporary discourse on ‘failure’ is grossly Eurocentric.” Ibid., pg. 37.
79 Žižek, Slavoj. “A Leftist Plea for ‘Eurocentrism.’” Critical Inquiry. (Summer 1998). Pgs. 988, 1006.
80 Losurdo, Domenico. “Moral Dilemmas and Broken Promises: A Historical View of the Non-Violent Movement.” Translated by Frank Gordon. Historical Materialism. (№ 18: Winter 2010). Pg. 88.
81 Adorno, Theodor. “Progress.” Translated by Henry W. Pickford. Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 150.
82 Losurdo, “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution.” Pgs. 72-73.
83 The “whirlwind” (instead of the cloud) being the GULag into which Evgeniia Ginzburg was flung after being accused of participation in a Trotskyist plot to assassinate Kirov. Ginzburg, Evgeniia. Within the Whirlwind. Translated by Ian Boland. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. New York, NY: 1982). Pg. 235.
84 “At the end of his political career Lenin several times called Russia’s institutional heritage ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘Asiatic.’ He noted that Russian society had ‘not yet emerged’ from its ‘semi-Asiatic’ lack of culture.” Wittfogel, Karl. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 1963). Pg. 400. Losurdo explicitly criticizes Wittfogel: “[T]o use an approach similar to the one…proposed by Wittfogel would be misleading.” Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Pg. 29.
85 Losurdo, “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution.” Pg. 73.
86 Ibid., pg. 82.
87 “The country in which the Communists have gained power can be used, in the first place, as a base for extending the revolution to the highest levels of capitalist development. Or, recognizing the unfavorable relationship of strength at the international level, Communists may identify the main task as building, in the country in which power is obtained, the new social system called upon to replace capitalism. The first choice refers back to Trotsky; the second to Stalin. There is, however, a third choice: the more or less backward country in which the Communists have conquered power is committed, primarily, to the programmed development of the productive forces in order to bridge the gap with the advanced capitalist countries and proceed to the construction of socialism. This is the way chosen by the People’s Republic of China from 1978 onwards.” Losurdo, Domenico. “Marxism, Globalization, and the Historical Balance of Socialism.” Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 13, № 3: 2000). Pgs. 339-340.
88 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 499.
89 Ibid., pg. 496.
90 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 45.
91 “It is enlightening to look at the subaltern dependency of the Left especially with regard to the campaign that the U.S. administration has undertaken against the People’s Republic of China. A whole series of disclosures has recently shed new light on the events of Tiananmen Square. Banned students and intellectuals, who were exiled to the United States, are today criticizing the ‘radical’ exponents of the movement back then for seeking to impede reconciliation with officials in Beijing at any cost. Thus we see the real goal pursued by certain circles (in China and outside it) after the disturbances of 1989. This is made clear in an article in Foreign Affairs (a journal close to the State Department) where it is gleefully forecast that China will fall apart after the death of Deng Xiaoping.” Ibid., pg. 476.
92 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 1.
93 “A few months after Stalin’s death, Beria becomes isolated and is liquidated by a majority that includes, besides Khrushchev, Stalin’s closest collaborators. Against whom should the charges be directed in this case? Another point to ponder is the method of Beria’s liquidation: it is a Mafia-style reckoning, a brutal act that makes no reference either to law or the Party constitution.” Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 42.
94 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt Publishers. New York, NY: 1976). On de Gobineau: pgs. 165, 170-175, 183, 330, 333. On Disraeli, “an English imperialist and a Jewish chauvinist”: Passim, pgs. 75-79, 83, 87, 175, 183, 190. On Rhodes’ imperialism and anti-semitism: Passim, pgs. 124-125, 132, 144, 200, 203, 211-212, 214-215, 316. On Chamberlain: Passim, pgs. 330, 333.
95 On Calhoun’s racist defense of the master class: Losurdo, Liberalism. Pgs. 1-7, 54, 56-57, 61-64, 69-70, 72, 75, 102, 106, 111, 120, 139, 152-153, 156, 162-163, 176, 184, 202, 222, 224, 226, 308. On Mill’s colonial racism: Ibid., pgs. 3, 7, 179-180, 220, 225, 247-249, 267-268, 287-288, 318, 332. On Roosevelt’s racism toward Native Americans and others: Ibid., pgs. 220, 303, 327, 330-331.
96 “I certainly, though a Liberal, [do] not subscribe to your party to assist in the one thing I hate above everything, namely, the policy of disintegrating and breaking up our empire.” Rhodes, Cecil. Last Will and Testament. (“Review of Reviews” Office. London, England: 1902). Pgs. 134-135.
97 Losurdo, Liberalism. Pgs. 268-271.
98 “[Calhoun’s] attempt…to conserve hierarchy against mass democracy…[makes] him a conservative.” Seymour, Richard. “Liberals and Reactionaries.” Leninology. (October 7th, 2011).
99 “Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorized as conservative than as liberal — Calhoun, for example.” Rooksby, Ed. “Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion?” New Left Project. (November 21st, 2011).
100 “[T]he inclusion of Calhoun in the liberal pantheon can’t help but raise some eyebrows.” Serpe, Nick. “Liberalism’s Exclusions and Expansions.” Jacobin. (№ 5. Winter 2011). Pg. 57.
101 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 2.
102 Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War. Pgs. 223-224.
103 “A contemporary liberal might be tempted to be shot of the unmanageable presence within the tradition of thought he refers to of an author like Burke, who celebrated the particular intensity of the liberal spirit and love of liberty among slave-owners; or of an author like Calhoun, who in the nineteenth century still hymned the ‘positive good’ that was slavery. And so both…are officially included in the conservative party…[But] both Burke and Calhoun aimed to be vigilant guardians of the social relations and political institutions which emerged, respectively, from the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution — two eminently liberal revolutions…Burke…was not a slave-owner [but] celebrated the ‘liberal spirit’ and ‘liberal’ emphasis of the slaveholding South…Calhoun…tirelessly reiterated his attachment to representative bodies and the principle of the limitation of power.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 62.
104 “Through the same plan of a conformity to nature in our artificial institutions, and by calling in the aid of her unerring and powerful instincts, to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason, we have derived several other, and those no small benefits, from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance. Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles.” Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Selected Works, Volume 2. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 1999). Pgs. 122-123.
105 Ibid., pg. 151.
106 Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Pg. 116.
107 “Calhoun, in brief, failed to appreciate the staying power of capitalism. At the very time when it was swinging into its period of most hectic growth he spoke as though it had already gone into decline.” Ibid., pg. 114. And further: “[T]he Calhoun dialectic was so starkly reactionary in its implications that it became self-defeating.” Ibid., pg. 116.
108 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Passim, pgs. 92, 97-98, 104, 162, 215, 306, 327-328, 331.
109 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 221.
110 Ibid., pgs. 27-30.
111 There is “an unresolved tension in Losurdo’s book that might lead us to question whether ‘liberalism’ and ‘radicalism’ can be so neatly separated.” Serpe, “Liberalism’s Exclusions and Expansions.” Pg. 58. “[In Losurdo’s account of] the relationship between liberalism and radicalism…[,] the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated.” Rooksby, “Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion?” “Losurdo’s necessarily inconclusive litmus tests prove nothing except that no one he labels liberal meets his test of moral or ideological purity. He does hive off the category of ‘radical,’ which seems to capture those who do pass the test: Condorcet, supporters of the Haitian revolution, Simón Bolívar, and other Latin Americans committed to the political equality of all races.” Pitts, Jennifer. “Free for All.” Times Literary Supplement. (September 23rd, 2011). Pg. 9.
112 Seymour, “Liberals and Reactionaries.”
113 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 180.
114 Ibid., pg. 168. “Jacobinism is in my interpretation a form of radicalism, because they appealed not only to the liberation of the slaves ‘from above,’ but struggled together with the slaves in order to overthrow slavery.” Losurdo, Domenico. “Liberalism and Marx: An Interview with Domenico Losurdo.” The Platypus Review. (№ 46. May 1st, 2012). Pg. 3.
115 Ibid., pg. 164.
116 Ibid., pgs. 168, 311, 314-315.
117 “[European] explorers arrive in a region of the New World unoccupied by anyone from the Old World, and immediately bury a small strip of metal on which they have engraved these words: This country belongs to us. And why does it belong to you? Are you as unjust and stupid as some primitive men who are accidentally carried to your shores, where they write on the sand or on the bark of your trees: This country is ours? You have no right to the natural products of the country where you land, and you claim a right over your fellow men. Instead of recognizing this man as a brother, you only see him as a slave, a beast of burden…This reproach should especially be addressed to the Spaniards.” Diderot, Denis. Histoire des Deux Indes. Translated by John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler. Political Writings. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2001). Pgs. 176-177.
118 “Much more so than Bentham, it was Kant who came close to radicalism.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 178.
119 Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Translated by Hans Siegbert Reiss. Political Writings. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 114.
120 “[T]he following maxims…can be made unalterable commands: 1. To think for oneself; 2. To think oneself (in communication with human beings) into the place of every other person…The first principle is negative (nullius addictus iurare in verba Magistri) the principle of freedom from constraint; the second is positive, the principle of liberals who adapt to the principles of others…” 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). Pgs. 332-333.
121 Kant, Immanuel. “Of the Different Races of Human Beings.” Translated by Holly Wilson and Günther Zöller. Anthropology, History, and Education. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2007).
122 Losurdo, Domenico. Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns. Translated by Jon and Marella Morris. (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2004). Pg. 124.
123 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Pg. 103.
124 “Whoever placed the emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative…Whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition…Hegel himself …seemed on the whole to be more inclined to the conservative side.” Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Translated by K.M. Cook. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 363.
125 “[I]n Berne[,] Hegel dissociated himself from the radical and plebeian wing of the French Revolution.” Lukács, Georg. The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relation between Dialectics and Economics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. (Merlin Press. London, England: 1973). Pg. 134.
126 “Hegel does not hesitate to extol the French Revolution as a social revolution…[T]his…provides further proof against Lukács’ position: plebeian motifs are indeed present in Hegel.” Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns. Pg. 145.
127 Marx, Karl. “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution.” Translated by Salo Ryazanskaya. Collected Works, Volume 8: 1848-1849. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 161.
128 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 127.
129 Ibid., pg. 145.
130 Paine, Thomas. “Letter to George Washington.” Complete Writings, Volume 1. (Citadel Press. Binghamton, NY: 1945). Pgs. 698-699.
131 Paine, Thomas. “To the People of England on the Invasion of England.” Complete Writings, Volume 1. (Citadel Press. Binghamton, NY: 1945). Pg. 678.
132 “The peculiarity of the French Revolution is that one section of the liberal middle class was prepared to remain revolutionary up to and indeed beyond the brink of anti-bourgeois revolution: these were the Jacobins, whose name came to stand for ‘radical revolution’ everywhere.” Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1996). Pg. 62.
133 Trotskii, Leon. Results and Prospects. Translated by Brian Pearce. Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1978). Pg. 54.
134 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2006). Pg. 39.
135 Abbé de Sieyès. “What is the Third Estate?” Translated by Michael Sonenscher. Political Writings. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 2003). Pg. 101.
136 Renner, Karl. “State and Nation.” Translated by Joseph O’Donnell. National Cultural Autonomy and Its Contemporary Critics. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 24.
137 “The basic characteristic of the modern nation…is its modernity.” Hobsbawm, Eric. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2000). Pg. 14.
138 Adorno, Theodor. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Translated by Rolf Tiedemann. (Polity Press. Malden, MA: 2006). Pg. 103.
139 Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Translated by Martin Thom. Nation and Narration. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2000). Pg. 9.
140 “[T]he nation is the specifically bourgeois form of social organization; it is a form of organization because it emerged historically in certain definite units, whether geographical or linguistic in nature, or whether otherwise defined. It…has had to fight to establish itself in the course of historical struggles.” Adorno, History and Freedom. Pg. 105.
141 “There have been periods when the nation had a highly progressive function…[T]he development of communications, and hence of the forces of production in general, was advanced by the collapse of the barriers erected by small feudal monarchies, the states generally referred to under absolutism as petty principalities…It was only by bringing large territories together and combining them into a single political unit that it became possible to organize large bodies of people in a rational manner and in harmony with the principle of exchange…[U]nder the feudal system, groups of people were only loosely connected with one another and in those circumstances could not be welded together into the totality of bourgeois society.” Ibid., pg. 107.
142 Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War. Pg. 144.
143 ““The term Gemeinschaft…, which designates a fundamental category of German antimodernist tradition and of the Kriegsideologie, is simply Friedrich von Gentz’s translation of the ‘partnership’ theorized and exalted by Burke…, the ‘community [that] binds together not only the living, but the living, the dead, and the unborn’…The first theorization of ‘community,’ bathed in sacred aura, is formulated in England.” Ibid., pgs. 223-224.
144 Hobsbawm’s periodicity here is slightly different from the one he utilizes in his famous quadrilogy on the Age of Revolution (1789-1848), the Age of Capital (1848-1875), the Age of Empire (1875-1914), and the Age of Extremes (1914-1991).
145 “Ethnic group differences were from [the] revolutionary-democratic point of view as secondary as they later seemed to socialists.” Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Pg. 20.
146 Herder wrote in 1796: “Just as entire nations have one language in common, so they also share favorite paths of the imagination, certain turns and objects of thought: in short, one genius that expresses itself,…which we call its national character.” Herder, Johann Gottfried. “On the Character of Nations and Ages.” Translated by Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin. Another Philosophy of History and Other Political Writings. (Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN: 2004). Pg. 119.
147 Bauer, Otto. The Question of Nationalities and Social-Democracy. Translated by Joseph O’Donnell. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 2000). Pgs. 25-43.
148 Ibid., pg. 37. My emphasis. I would also contend that the reactionary character of liberalism did not become apparent until 1848, however, and suspect Hobsbawm would as well.
149 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 159-163.
150 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 490.
151 Losurdo, “Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy.” Pg. 250. “[T]he Chinese Communists understood to stay on the high ground represented by Lenin’s views of 1916, which stressed that the national question remains even after Communist and workers’ parties come to state power.” Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 489.
152 Losurdo, “Marxism, Globalization, and the Historical Balance of Socialism.” Pg. 349.
153 Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pgs. 481-482.
154 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 46.
155 “20th-century forms of na­tionalism (i.e., ‘anti-colonialism’) and Stalinism were the predominant (but not exclusive) results of the failed crisis of Marxism 1914-1919.” Cutrone, Chris. “1873-1973, The Century of Marxism: The Death of Marxism and the Emergence of Neoliberalism and Neo-anarchism.” The Platypus Review. (№ 47. June, 2012). Pg. 3.
156 Losurdo, Domenico. “Revolution, Nation, and Peace.” Translated by Arlete Dialetachi. Estudos Avançados. (Vol. 22, № 62: 2008). Pg. 18.
157 Ibid., pg. 19.
158 Pitts, “Free for All.” Pg. 9.
159 “Losurdo’s silence on women’s struggles for recognition is so complete as to be puzzling.” Serpe, “Liberalism’s Exclusions and Expansions.” Pg. 60.
160 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 181.
161 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 36.
162 “The mainstream French press enjoys interviewing such a relaxed and ‘cool’ philosopher who, besides being very photogenic and writing with flair, plays the part of the essayist explaining contemporary anxieties about education, the fate or future of the Left, the status of minorities, and economic growth, among other subjects, to a wide readership.” Coste, Bénédicte. “Michéa’s Radical Philosophy and Its Discontents.” Yale French Studies. (№ 116-117: 2009). Pgs. 80-81.
163 Michéa, Jean-Claude. The Realm of Lesser Evil: An Essay on Liberal Civilization. Translated by David Fernbach. (Polity Press. Malden, MA: 2009). Pgs. 122-126.
164 Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2010). Pgs. 37-39.
165 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 9.
166 Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek, interviewed by Dianna Dilworth.” The Believer. (McSweeney’s Publishers. LLC: July 1st, 2004). Pg. 170.
167 “This certainly does not mean that the whole series of conflicts that disorganized Europe at this time can be reduced simply to religious civil war. But the latter formed the permanent background, with the result that even the seemingly more classic wars that were regularly waged between the political powers of the time — such as the terrible Thirty Years War in the first half of the seventeenth century — were always overdetermined, both in their origin and in their concrete peripeties, by the logic of this new form of conflict. It also affected the very nature of human relations in the most radical fashion.” Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 10.
168 Ibid., pg. 12.
169 “It is in all likelihood this haunting by civil war that explains…why the philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and particularly those of Protestant origin or sensibility) almost always describe their ‘state of nature’ as a condition necessarily governed by the war of all against all.” Ibid., pg. 11.
170 Ibid., pg. 5.
171 Ibid., pg. 80.
172 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2003). Pg. 22.
173Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 1.
174 Ibid., pg. 41.
175 The essays to which Michéais referring are Lenin’s “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (1913) and Kautsky’s lecture on “The Three Sources of Marxism” (1907). Ibid., pg. 40.
176 “Michéa sees contemporary neoliberalism and socialism as predicated on the worship of progress and modernity.” Coste, “Michéa’s Radical Philosophy and Its Discontents.” Pg. 83.
177 Agreeing with Christopher Lasch, Michéa writes that “[t]he modern belief in Progress…should not be interpreted as simply ‘a secularized version of Christian millenarianism.’ It is fundamentally the sign of a very prosaic aspiration to finally live in peace, far from the murderous agitations of History, and a legitimate desire on the part of individuals (at least according to Adam Smith) to now devote the essential part of their efforts to ‘improving their condition’ by peacefully seeing to their own affairs. In this sense, the modern ideal of progress was originally anchored less in the attractions of some earthly paradise than in the desire to escape at all costs from the hell of ideological civil war.” Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pgs. 12-13.
178 Ibid., pg. 44.
179 Leonard, Spencer. “Going it Alone: Christopher Hitchens and the Death of the Left.” The Platypus Review. (№ 11. March 15th, 2009). Pg. 3.
180 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 22.
181 On sexual impropriety: ibid., pgs. 21-22, 37. On obesity and vegetarianism: ibid., pg. 99. On drugs: ibid., pgs. 20, 23.
182 Michéa, Jean-Claude. “Socialism or Barbarism? We have to Choose Now!” Interview conducted by Daoud Boughezala, Jacques de Guillebon, Élisabeth Lévy, and Bruno Maillé.
183 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 81.
184 Ibid., pg. 127.
185 “In the liberal monadology, the family tie can only be conceived as a particular modality of contractual logic.” Ibid., pg. 102.
186 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 4.
187 Staël, Anne Louise Germaine de. Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Translator undisclosed. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 2008). Pg. 191.
188 Bonald, Louis de. “Observations upon Madame de Staël’s Considerations on the French Revolution.” Translated by Christopher Olaf Blum. Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition. (ISI Books. Wilmington, DE: 2004). Pg. 87.
189 Ibid., pg. 100.
190 “The essence of the modem state is that the universal should be linked with the complete freedom of particularity [Besonderheit] and the well-being of individuals, and hence that the interest of the family and of civil society must become focused on the state.” Hegel, Philosophy of Right. Pg. 283, §260.
191 “The positive transcendence of private property, as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement — that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i. e., social, existence.” Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan and Dirk J. Struik. Collected Works, Volume 3: 1843-1844. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 297.
192 Riehl, Walter Heinrich. The Natural History of the German People. Translated by David J. Diephouse. (Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston, NY: 1990). Pg. 330.
193 Michéa, “Socialism or Barbarism? We have to Choose Now!”
194 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 132.
195 Ibid., pg. 105. My emphasis.
196 “…(which basically sum up our personal capacity to give, receive, and assist).” Ibid., pg. 94.
197 On “the logic of the gift”: Passim, ibid., pgs. 46, 92-94, 105-106, 109, 119, 127.
198 Michéa asserts that “generosity and honesty are worth infinitely more than egoism and the calculating spirit.” Ibid., pg. 107. Compare again with the celebration of the egoism’s emancipatory potential by Marx and Engels: “[The bourgeoisie] has drowned the ecstasies of religious fervor, of zealous chivalry, of philistine sentiment in the icy waters of egoistic calculation.” Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 3.
199 Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. (Palgrave. New York, NY: 2001). Passim, pgs. vii, 8, 11, 18-19, 27-29, 32-37, 40-45, 77, 91, 93-94, 99, 104, 112-113, 124-126, 131, 133, 137, 140-141, 143-144, 146, 152-164, 166-169, 174-176, 178-184, 186, 191-192, 194, 196, 198, 200, 204, 208, 210-213, 215, 217-222, 224-228, 230. Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Melville House. Brooklyn, NY: 2011). Passim, pgs. 36, 61, 90, 98-99, 103-112, 116-120, 132, 137-138, 145-146, 153-154, 172, 186, 187, 192-195, 219-220, 238, 262, 264, 285-286, 300, 328, 371.
200 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 133. “Michéa cannot be said to embrace the anti-globalization movement, which he blames for seeking some adjustments in the concept of the market, without, however, abandoning notions relating to the metaphysics of progress.” Coste, “Michéa’s Radical Philosophy and Its Discontents.” Pg. 88.
201 “[I]n its essence direct action is the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free. One does not solicit the state.” Graeber, David. Direct Action: An Ethnography. (AK Press. Baltimore, MD: 2009). Pg. 203.
202 Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 128. My italics. On “indirect action,” see also: “Asian theories of ‘not acting’ (wu wei) suggest privileging in all fields of activity ‘strategies’ based on indirect action.” Ibid., pg. 129.
203 “The realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over…all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds.” Ibid., pg. 140.
204 Ibid., pg. 139.
205 Ibid., pg. 59.
206 Reid, Thomas. An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. (Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh, Scotland: 2000). Pg. 72.
207 “[I]t is sufficient for me to have kept within the limits of common decency [civilité ordinaire].” Bayle, Pierre. “Fourth Clarification: On Obscenities.” Translated by Sally L. Jenkinson. Political Writings. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2000). Pg. 337.
208 “[L]iberalism conceives itself as a ‘politics of the lesser evil,’ its ambition is to bring about the ‘least worst society possible,’ thus preventing a greater evil, since it considers any attempt to directly impose a positive good as the ultimate source of all evil. Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst of all political systems, with the exception of all the others, holds even better for liberalism…However…[t]he claim to want nothing but the lesser evil, once asserted as the principle of the new global order, gradually replicates the very features of the enemy it claims to be fighting against. The global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds.” Žižek, Living in the End Times. Pg. 38.
209 Žižek, “Slavoj Žižek, interviewed by Dianna Dilworth.” Pgs. 169-170.
210 Toscano, Alberto. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2010). Pgs. 2-3.
211 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 40.
212 “‘Postcolonial’ critics like to emphasize the insensitivity of liberalism to its own limitation: in defending human rights, it tends to impose its own version of them onto others.” Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. (Picador Press. New York, NY: 2008). Pgs. 147-148.
213 Ibid., pg. 149.
214 Postone, Moishe. “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, and David Harvey.” History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays. (UTCP. Tokyo, Japan: 2009). Pg. 106.
215 Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2006). Pg. 157.
216 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 7, §12.
217 Žižek, Slavoj. “Only Communism can Save Liberal Democracy.” ABC Religion and Ethics. (October 3rd, 2011).
218 “[L]iberalism and fundamentalism form a ‘totality’: the opposition of liberalism and fundamentalism is structured so that liberalism itself generates its opposite. So what about the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, fraternity?” Ibid.
219 Toscano, Alberto. “The Bourgeois and the Islamist, or, the Other Subjects of Politics.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy.(Vol. 2, № 1-2: 2006). Pg. 35.
220 “Islamic fundamentalism refers to a community of people who, not without reason, claim to be the targets of a policy of aggression and of military occupation.” Losurdo, “Pre-emptive War, Americanism, and Anti-Americanism.” Pg. 380. Elsewhere he gestures toward the reactionary character of Islamism: “The world of Islam is called upon to overcome the current decadence and crisis by a return to the situation prior to the military, ideological, and political Western aggression, and this means…a protection…against all Western political tendencies without differentiation, from liberalism to communism.” Losurdo, “What is Fundamentalism?” Pg. 11.
221 “The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3. “[T]he exclusion clauses [of liberalism] were not overcome painlessly, but through violent upheavals of a sometimes quite unprecedented violence.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 341.
222 “With scarcely a thought respecting the now definitive failure of the trajectory of the October Revolution that conserved, in however degraded a form, the emancipatory impulses of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin, the zombie-Left in 1989 congratulated itself on yet another supposed accomplishment.” Leonard, “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: 2001.” Pg. 2.
223 Postone, Moishe. “Critical Theory and the Twentieth Century.” History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays. (UTCP. Tokyo, Japan: 2009). Pg. 51.
224 Žižek, “Only Communism can Save Liberal Democracy.”
225 Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 54. “Of course, the welfare state was not the result of an internal, spontaneous evolution. It was…a result of the challenge posed [to liberalism] by the socialist movement…But now, with the practical disappearance of the socialist challenge, at least in the Western world, we see, unfortunately, that the disappearing of this challenge…[and] the risks it posed, has led to the disappearance of the welfare state, too.” Losurdo, Domenico. Interview conducted by Tony Curzon Price. “Liberalism: The Road from Serfdom. A Conversation with Domenico Losurdo.” Open Democracy. May 15th, 2011. Minutes 39:14-41:02.
226 “Lukács once wrote of the Enlightenment hope that ‘democratic bourgeois freedom and the supremacy of economics would one day lead to the salvation of all mankind.’ As we know only too well, it did not… [T]he more perceptive of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers — above all, Smith himself, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar — [maintained a] studied ambiguity towards ‘actually-existing capitalism’ as it emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century…We in the movements against globalization and imperialist war [have fought for what they did under a different name].” Davidson, Neil. “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” Historical Materialism. (Vol. 13, № 4: 2005). Pg. 49.
227 Marx, Karl. The Civil War in France. Translated by David Forgacs et al. Collected Works, Volume 22: 1870-1871. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1986). Pg. 335. My emphases.
228 Engels, Friedrich. “England’s 17th-Century Revolution: A Review of François Guizot’s 1850 Pamphlet, Pourquoi la révolution d’Angleterre a-t-elle réussi?.” Translated by H.J. Sterling. Collected Works, Volume 10: 1848-1851. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1980). Pg. 253.
229 Marx, The Civil War in France. Pg. 335. My emphases.
230 Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Translated by Julius Katzer. Collected Works, Volume 31: April-December 1920. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1974). Pg. 56.
231 “Political economy has…analyzed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question…why the measurement of labor by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man…appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labor itself.” Marx, Capital: Volume 1. Pgs. 173-175.
232 Lukács, Georg. “Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution.’” Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1971). Pg. 282.
233Communism…as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being — a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved.” Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Pgs. 296-297.
234 “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Pg. 32.
235 Engels, Friedrich. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Translated by Edward Aveling. Collected Works, Volume 24: 1873-1874. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1989). Pgs. 323-324.
236 Luxemburg, Rosa. “What does the Spartacus League Want?” Translated by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. (Monthly Review Press. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 350.
237 Rubin, Richard. “Trotskii and Trotskyism: 1905.”
238 “[T]o the extent that [liberals] assume people to be ‘incapable of truth and goodness,’…the modernizing ‘Politiques’…found themselves logically led to limit their philosophical ambitions to seeking the least bad society possible.” Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil. Pg. 60.
239 On ecological catastrophe: Žižek, Living in the End Times. Pg. 328. On nuclear war: ibid., pg. 332.
240 Žižek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pg. 421.
241 Jameson, Fredric. Valences of the Dialectic. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2009). Pg. 412.
242 “The notion of adaptation refers to the different strategies which humanity has invented to exploit the resources of nature and confront the ecological constraints which weigh upon the reproduction of both natural and human resources.” Godelier, Maurice. The Mental and the Material: Thought Economy and Society. Translated by Martin Thom. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1986). Pg. 5.
243 “There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history — and this applies to every revolution — presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous.” Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. Letters from Afar. Translated by M.S. Levin and Joe Fineberg. Collected Works, Volume 23: August 1916-March 1917. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1964). Pg. 297.
244 “That which is sublated is…something [negated,] at the same time preserved, something that has lost its immediacy but has not come to nothing for that.” Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Science of Logic. Translated by George di Giovanni. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2010). Pgs. 81-82.
245 Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s Politics: A Rejoinder to David Adam on Lenin’s Liberalism.” The Platypus Review. (№ 40. October, 2011). Pg. 2.
246 Davidson, “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Part 2).” Pg. 7.
247 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 3.
248 “The party of Order was formed directly after the June days.” Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. Pg. 95.
249 Marx, The Civil War in France. Pg. 34.
250 Thiers was a member of the French Radicals. This again undermines the meaning Losurdo attempts to assign to the term “radical,” as Marx and Engels refer specifically to the French Radicals’ opposition to Communism: “A specter stalks the land of Europe — the specter of communism. The powers that be — Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police — are in holy alliance for a witch-hunt.” Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 1.
251 “[O]ne may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries. Nor did they seize the reins of government during the revolution or for long time afterwards, either in England or in France. The lower middle classes, the urban poor, the plebeians and sans culottes made up the big insurgent battalions…Yet the bourgeois character of these revolutions will not appear at all mythical, if we approach them with a broader criterion and view their general impact on society. Their most substantial and enduring achievement was to sweep away the social and political institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property and of the social relationships that went with it…Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish. In this…lies its differentia specifica.” Deutscher, Isaac. The Unfinished Revolution, Russia 1917-1967: The George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1967). Pg. 22.
252 “If we have to choose between modern revisionist historiography as a guide to nineteenth-century history, including French history, and the liberal analysts of the Restoration, is it so certain that Furet is more illuminating than Guizot, Mignet, and de Tocqueville?” Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Making of a ‘Bourgeois Revolution.’” The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1990). Pg. 46. “Even though the high tide of revisionism has now receded, many on the Left have effectively accepted the case for the irrelevance of the bourgeois revolutions.” Davidson, Neil. “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Part 1).” Historical Materialism. (Vol. 13, № 3: 2005). Pg. 5. It is quite possible that Davidson was too optimistic on this score: see the recent dismissal of the bourgeois revolutions by Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider.
253 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 341-342.
254 “[S]elf-identity is no less negativity; therefore its fixed existence passes over into its dissolution. [This] seems at first to be due entirely to the fact that it is related to an other,…imposed on it by an alien power; but [it in fact has] its otherness within itself.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Pg. 34.
255 Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. “What Our Liberal Bourgeoisie Want, and What They Fear.” Translated by Abraham Fineberg and Julius Katzer. Collected Works, Volume 9: June-November 1905. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1972). Pg. 241.
256 Trotskii, Results and Prospects. Pg. 54.
257 “From the time of the Restoration the liberals of all countries called upon the people to overthrow the monarchic feudal system for the sake of equality, the tears of the wretched, the suffering of the oppressed, and the starvation of the destitute…[The liberals] came to their senses only when [in 1848], amid the half-ruined walls, they espied a proletarian — not a proletarian in books, in parliamentary twaddle, or in philanthropic harangues, but in stark reality, a workman with an axe in rude hands, tattered and starved. This unfortunate and disinherited brother of whom so much had been said and who had been so deeply pitied now demanded his share in the blessings, his freedom, his equality, and his fraternity. Aghast at his impertinence and ingratitude, the liberals took the streets of Paris by assault, strewed them with corpses and hid from their brother behind the bayonets of martial law, thereby preserving civilization and order.” Herzen, Aleksandr. From the Other Shore. Translated by L. Navrozov. Selected Philosophical Works. (Foreign Language Publishing House. Moscow, USSR: 1956). Pg. 381.
258 “One hundred years have elapsed since Herzen’s birth. The whole of liberal Russia is paying homage to him, studiously evading, however, the serious questions of socialism, and taking pains to conceal that which distinguished Herzen the revolutionary from a liberal.” Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. “In Memory of Herzen.” Translated by Stepan Apresyan. Collected Works, Volume 18: April 1912-March 1913. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1975). Pg. 25.
259 Herzen, From the Other Shore. Pgs. 376-377.
260 Lenin, “In Memory of Herzen.” Pg. 26.
261 Cutrone, Chris. “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848.” The Platypus Review. (№ 33. March 1st, 2011). Pgs. 1, 4.
262 “In [the] unchanged world of debates, discords, and irreconcilable contradictions…[the liberals] wanted …their pia desideria of freedom, equality, and fraternity.” Herzen, From the Other Shore. Pgs. 381-382.
263 Tocqueville, Alexis de. “Letter 58: To Paul Clamorgan, June 24th, 1848.” Translated by James Toupin and Roger Boesche. Selected Letters on Politics and Society. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1985). Pgs. 212-213.
264 Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. (Basic Books. New York, NY: 2009). Pg. 206.
265 Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. Confessions of a Revolutionary. Translated by Shawn P. Wilbur. Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology. (AK Press. Baltimore, MD: 2011). Pg. 426.
266 “Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce. Caussidière after Danton, Louis Blanc after Robespierre, the montagne of 1848-1851 after the montagne of 1793-1795, and then the London constable with a dozen of the best debt-ridden lieutenants, after the little corporal, with his roundtable of military marshals!” Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Pg. 103.
267 Marx, Karl. “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper.” Collected Works, Volume 14: 1855-1856. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1980). Pg. 655.
268 Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. “Socialism and the Peasantry.” Translated by Abraham Fineberg and Julius Katzer. Collected Works, Volume 9: 1905. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1972). Pg. 307.
269 Marx, “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper.” Pgs. 655-657.
270 Cohan, Jeremy. “Lukács’ Abyss.” The Platypus Review. (№ 38. August, 2011). Pg. 3.
271 Trotskii, Leon. “Great Times.” The Communist International. (Moscow, USSR: 1919).
272 On Hayek: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, passim, pgs. 212-213, 284, 300, 332, 333; Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism,” passim, pgs. 27-28, 36, 37, 43-45; Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, pgs. 30, 77, 82, 133, 190-191, 267-271, 274, 279, 284-285, 292, 300, 306-308; Losurdo, “What is Fundamentalism?”, pgs. 29-30; Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement,” pgs. 36-37. On Mises: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, passim pgs. 284, 327-328, 333.
273 “Demonstrating an extraordinary flexibility, [liberalism] constantly sought to react and rise to the challenges of the time…Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (‘radicalism’) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.” Ibid., Pg. 343.
274 “None has been as committed as [liberalism] to thinking through the decisive problem of the limitation of power.” Ibid., pg. 343. “[L]iberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3.
275 “The basic assumptions of possessive individualism — that man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person, and that human society is essentially a series of market relations — were deeply embedded in the seventeenth century.” Macpherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 272.
276 “I find in the classical liberal tradition from Locke to Bentham and James Mill an increasing recognition of the exploitative nature of a society based on the capital/wage-labor relation…With J.S. Mill and T.H. Green (and their twentieth-century liberal followers) there is no recognition, indeed there is a denial, of the exploitative nature of capital.” Macpherson, C.B. “The Economic Penetration of Political Theory: Some Hypotheses.” Journal of the History of Ideas. (Vol. 39, № 1: January-March 1978). Pg. 112.
277 “J.S. Mill, in spite of his ranking as an outstanding economist, did not grasp the essence of the capitalist market economy,…[and] was able to rise above the market morality only because he did not…The next outstanding figure in the English liberal-democratic tradition, T.H. Green, a philosopher with no pretensions as an economist,…like Mill…despised and rejected market morality.” Macpherson, C.B. “Post-Liberal Democracy?” Canadian Journal of Economics and Politics. (Vol. 30, № 4: November, 1964). Pg. 490.
278 “[H]ow did ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity lead to empire, liberticide, and fratricide? Similarly, how did a commitment to toleration lead to such patronizing and unsympathetic characterizations of the ways in which strangers lived their lives? Moreover, where did thinkers whose deepest convictions made them suspicious of the power of government acquire the confidence to sanction the most extravagant forms of government and public action? How did philosophers and historians like J.S. Mill and John Seeley, who were committed to the idea of national self-determination, see in an ancient civilization like India none of the integuments of a nation or of ‘a people’?” Mehta, Uday Singh. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1999). Pg. 190.
279 Nevertheless, it should be noted that in his speculations regarding the longue durée of liberal political theory, Mehta anticipates the central claim later made by Losurdo about liberalism’s “exclusion clauses”: “In its theoretical vision, liberalism, from the seventeenth century to the present, has prided itself on its universality and politically inclusionary character. And yet, when viewed as a historical phenomenon, the period of liberal history is unmistakably marked by the systematic and sustained political exclusion of various groups and ‘types’ of people.” Ibid., pg. 46.
280 Koditschek, Theodore. Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination: Nineteenth-Century Visions of a Greater Britain. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2011). Pgs. 4-6.
281 Wallerstein, Immanuel. After Liberalism. (The New Press. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 95.
282 Notably, Losurdo appeals to Wallerstein’s work on a number of occasions, as with Hofstadter, though their results contradict his own. Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pgs. 15, 87, 302.
283 Poggi, Gianfranco. The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 1978). Pgs. 36-59.
284 Marx, Karl. “Letter to Friedrich Engels.” Translated by Peter Ross and Betty Ross. Collected Works, Volume 39: Letters, 1852-1855. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1983). Pgs. 473-474.
285 Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 259.
286 Leonard, Spencer. Recording: “Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Proletarian Socialism Continuing the Bourgeois Revolutions?” Marxism and the Bourgeois Revolution. Lecture at the Marxist Literary Group summer 2011 Institute on Culture and Society. July 20th-24th, 2011. Minutes 6:09-6:15.
287 Ibid., minutes 10:58-11:06.
288 Engels, Friedrich. “Speech at the Festival of Nations in London.” Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1976). Pg. 3.

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