The Jews and Europe

Max Horkheimer
Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
December 1939

Whoever wants to explain anti-Semitism must speak of National Socialism. Without a conception of what has happened in Germany, speaking about anti-Semitism in Siam or Africa remains senseless. The new anti-Semitism is the emissary of the totalitarian order, which has developed from the liberal one. One must thus go back to consider the tendencies within capitalism. But it is as if the refugee intellectuals have been robbed not only of their citizenship, but also of their minds. Thinking, the only mode of behavior that would be appropriate for them, has fallen into discredit. The “Jewish-Hegelian jargon,” which once carried all the way from London to the German Left and even then had to be translated into the ringing tones of the union functionaries, now seems completely eccentric. With a sigh of relief they throw away the troublesome weapon and turn to neohumanism, to Goethe’s personality, to the true Germany and other cultural assets. International solidarity is said to have failed. Because the worldwide revolution did not come to pass, the theoretical conceptions in which it appeared as the salvation from barbarism are now considered worthless. At present, we have really reached the point where the harmony of capitalist society along with the opportunities to reform it have been exposed as the very illusions always denounced by the critique of the free market economy; now, as predicted, the contradictions of technical progress have created a permanent economic crisis, and the descendants of the free entrepreneurs can maintain their positions only by the abolition of bourgeois freedoms; now the literary opponents of totalitarian society praise the very conditions to which they owe their present existence, and deny the theory which, when there was still time, revealed its secrets.

No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to the world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. The English hosts today fare better than Frederick the Great did with the acid-tongued Voltaire. No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions. Just as old people sometimes become as evil as they basically always were, at the end of the epoch class rule has taken the form of the “folk community” [Volksgemeinschaft]. The theory has destroyed the myth of the harmony of interests [between capital and labor]; it has presented the liberal economic process as the reproduction of power relations by means of free contracts, which are compelled by the inequality of the property. Mediation has now been abolished. Fascism is that truth of modern society which has been realized by the theory from the beginning. Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.


No revision of economic theory is required to understand fascism. Equal and just exchange has driven itself to the point of absurdity, and the totalitarian order is this absurdity. The transition from liberalism has occurred logically enough, and less brutally than from the mercantile system into that of the nineteenth century. The same economic tendencies that create an ever higher productivity of labor through the mechanism of competition have suddenly turned into forces of social disorganization. The pride of liberalism, industry developed technically to the utmost, ruins its own principle because great parts of the population can no longer sell their labor. The reproduction of what exists by the labor market becomes inefficient. Previously the bourgeoisie was decentralized, a many-headed ruler; the expansion of the plant was the condition for every entrepreneur to increase his portion of the social surplus. He needed workers in order to prevail in the competition of the market. In the age of monopolies, the investment of more and more new capital no longer promises any great increase in profits. The mass of workers, from whom surplus value flows, diminishes in comparison to the apparatus which it serves. In recent times, industrial production has existed only as a condition for profit, for the expansion of the power of groups and individuals over human labor. Hunger itself provides no reason for the production of consumer goods. To produce for the insolvent demand, for the unemployed masses, would run counter to the laws of economy and religion that hold the order together; no bread without work.

Even the façade betrays the obsolescence of the market economy. The advertising signs in all countries are its monuments. Their expression is ridiculous. They speak to the passers-by as shallow adults do to children or animals, in a falsely familiar slang. The masses, like children, are deluded: they believe that as independent subjects they have the freedom to choose the goods for themselves. But the choice has already largely been dictated. For decades there have been entire spheres of consumption in which only the labels change. The panoply of different qualities in which consumers revel exists only on paper. If advertising was always characteristic of the faux frais of the bourgeois commodity economy, still, it formerly performed a positive function as a means of increasing demand. Today the buyer is still paid an ideological reverence which he is not even supposed to believe entirely. He already knows enough to interpret the advertising for the great brand-name products as national slogans that one is not allowed to contradict. The discipline to which advertising appeals comes into its own in the fascist countries. In the posters the people find out what they really are: soldiers. Advertising becomes correct. The strict governmental command which threatens from every wall during totalitarian elections corresponds more exactly to the modern organization of the economy than the monotonously colorful lighting effects in the shopping centers and amusement quarters of the world.

The economic programs of the good European statesmen are illusory. In the final phase of liberalism they want to compensate with government orders for the disintegrating market economy’s inability to support the populace. Along with the economically powerful they seek to stimulate the economy so that it will provide everyone with a living, but they forget that the aversion to new investments is no whim. The industrialists have no desire to get their factories going via the indirect means of taxes they must pay to an all-too-impartial government simply to help the bankrupt farmers and other draft animals out of a jam. For their class such a procedure does not pay. No matter how much progovernmental economists may lecture the entrepreneurs that it is for their own benefit, the powerful have a better sense of their interests and have greater goals than a makeshift boom led with strikes and whatever else belongs to the proletarian class struggle. The statesmen who, after all this, still wish to run liberalism humanely, misunderstand its character. They may represent education and be surrounded by experts, but their efforts are nonetheless absurd: they wish to subordinate to the general populace that class whose particular interests by nature run contrary to the general ones. A government that would make the objects of welfare into subjects of free contracts by garnering the taxes of employers, must fail in the end: otherwise it would involuntarily degenerate from the proxy of the employers into the executive agency of the unemployed, indeed, of the dependent classes in general. Nearly confiscatory taxes, such as the inheritance tax, which are forced not only by the layoffs in industry, but also by the insoluble agriculture crisis, already threaten to make the weak into the “exploiters” of the capitalists. Such a reversal of circumstances will not be permitted in the long run by the employers in any empire. In the parliaments and all of public life, the employers sabotage neoliberal welfare policies. Even if these would help the economy, the employers would remain unreconciled: economic cycles are no longer enough for them. The relations of production prevail against the humanitarian governments. The pioneers from the employers’ associations create a new apparatus and their advocates take the social order into their hands; in place of fragmented command over particular factories, there arises the totalitarian rule of particular interests over the entire people. Individuals are subjected to a new discipline which threatens the foundations of the social order. The transformation of the downtrodden jobseeker from the nineteenth century into the solicitous member of a fascist organization recalls in its historical significance the transformation of the medieval master craftsman into the protestant burgher of the Reformation, or of the English village pauper into the modern industrial worker. Considering the fundamental nature of this change, the statesmen pursuing moderate progress appear reactionary.

b_250241 Berlin, Ged‰chtnisfeier f¸r Rathenau

The labor market is replaced by coerced labor. If over the past decades people went from exchange partners to beggars, objects of welfare, now they become direct objects of domination. In the prefascist stage the unemployed threatened the order. The transition to an economy which would unite the separated elements, which would give the people ownership of the idle machines and the useless grain, seemed unavoidable in Germany, and the world-wide danger of socialism seemed serious. With socialism’s enemies stood everyone who had anything to say in the Republic. Governing was carried out by welfare payments, by former imperial civil servants, and by reactionary officers. The trade unions wished to transform themselves from organs of class struggle into state institutions which distribute governmental largesse, inculcate a loyal attitude in the recipients, and participate in social control. Such help, however, was suspect to the powerful. Once German capital had resumed imperialist policies, it dropped the labor bureaucrats, political and trade unions, who had helped it into power. Despite their most honest intentions, the bureaucrats could not measure up to the new conditions. The masses were not activated for the improvement of their own lives, not to eat, but to obey — such is the task of the fascist apparatus. Governing has acquired a new meaning there. Instead of practiced functionaries, imaginative organizers and overseers are needed; they must be well removed from the influence of ideologies of freedom and human dignity. In late capitalism, peoples metamorphose first into welfare recipients and then into followers [Gefolgschaften].

Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative


Anti-revisionist revisionism

Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course conditions in the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, tainted by Marxism’s uncritical adoption of “Whiggish optimism” from bourgeois liberalism (which it otherwise ruthlessly critiqued) Late Stalinists like Losurdo and Horne make entire careers out of these claims.  Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, has become such a hackneyed routine that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. But few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Delegates from Carolina and Georgia struck such language from the final draft only with great difficulty, and after much debate. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented Jefferson in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with many other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.


In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading

Krugman on Piketty: From one celebrity neo-Keynesian to another

Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times on the buzz around Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Believe the hype, he advises, but the French economist is certainly no Marxist. The celebrated columnist documents some of the more extreme reactions the book has elicited from Republicans and right-wingers, which he calls “the Piketty panic”:

[C]onservatives are terrified…James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns in National Review that Mr. Piketty’s work must be refuted, because otherwise it “will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged”…it has been amazing to watch conservatives, one after another, denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist. Even Mr. Pethokoukis, who is more sophisticated than the rest, calls Capital a work of “soft Marxism,” which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist.

It is to Krugman’s credit that he can see through the hysterical right-wing denunciations of Piketty as a “Marxist” or “collectivist,” however. That’s something that can’t really be said for the book’s various “Marxian” admirers. Many on the Left tend to believe the Right’s paranoid rhetoric about fairly anodyne liberalism: if conservatives decry Keynesianism or political correctness as “Marxist” (i.e., economic  or cultural), then it must be!

Yeah, not really. Continue reading

Marx’s liberalism? An interview with Jonathan Sperber

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask: Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings — stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations — we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy. Continue reading

Stalinism’s ghost: Domenico Losurdo on civil society and the State

Symptomatic residues


Image: Cover to the French edition of
Domenico Losurdo’s Stalin: History
and Critics of a Black Legend

One of the points on which I take issue most with Domenico Losurdo’s interpretation of historical liberalism regards the old issue of civil society’s relationship to the state. This is, of course, a topic that should be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Hegel (or Marx’s critique of Hegel, for that matter). For Losurdo, a noted Hegel scholar, the entire debate is by now surely second nature. How this figures into the broader history of liberalism might be less clear to readers, however. This might be briefly spelled out.

In his sweeping overview of liberal thought down through the ages, Liberalism: A Counter-History, Losurdo highlights “the self-government of civil society” as one of its core organizing principles.[1] By “civil society” he is here clearly referring to the Third Estate, understood as the undifferentiated mass of commoners exempt from feudal privileges, in contradistinction to the First and Second Estates, comprised of the clergy and the nobility (respectively). The self-governance of civil society thus required the bourgeoisie’s emancipation from the rule of the ancien régime. “First with the Glorious Revolution and then later, more completely, with the American Revolution,” writes Losurdo, “the assertion of self-government by civil society hegemonized by slaveholders involved the definitive liquidation of traditional forms of ‘interference’ by political and religious authority.” Further on, with specific reference to the American context, he writes: “The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists.”[2] Continue reading

The truth of liberalism

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

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

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

Losurdo’s Liberalism:
A Counter-History

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

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

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

Part III: Losurdo in Light of Žižek & Michéa

Two alternative accounts of liberalism recently advanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution into reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue to Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism