Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo


Le 17 mars 2012 Ross Wolfe et Pam Nogales de la Platypus Affiliated Society ont interrogé Domenico Losurdo sur son récent ouvrage Contre Histoire du libéralisme.

Ross Wolfe: Comment caractérisez-vous la contradiction  entre émancipation et désémancipation dans l’idéologie libérale? Et d’où vient précisément cette logique?

Domenico Losurdo: Je pense que la dialectique entre émancipation et désémancipation est un élément clé pour comprendre l’histoire du libéralisme. La lutte des classes dont parle Marx est précisément l’objet d’une confrontation entre ces forces.  Ce que je souligne c’est que parfois émancipation et désémancipation sont étroitement connectées l’un à l’autre. Evidemment on peut voir dans l’histoire du libéralisme un aspect d’émancipation. Par exemple, Locke polémique contre le pouvoir absolu du roi. Il défend la nécessité de la liberté des citoyens contre le pouvoir absolu de la monarchie. Mais d’un autre côté Locke est le champion en ce qui concerne la défense de l’esclavage. Et dans ce cas, il agit comme un représentant de la désémancipation. Dans mon livre je développe une comparaison entre Locke d’un côté et Bodin de l’autre. Bodin est, quant à lui, un défenseur de la monarchie absolue, mais en même temps un critique de l’esclavage et du colonialisme.

Esclavage photos de 1880

Esclavage photos de 1880

RW: Le contre-exemple de Bodin est intéressant. Il en appelle à l’église et à la monarchie, le premier et le second Etat, dans sa défense de l’humanité des esclaves contre le «pouvoir arbitraire de vie et de mort» que Locke défend pour le propriétaire, le maitre, sur son esclave.

DL: Oui, chez Locke nous voyons l’inverse. Alors qu’il critique la monarchie absolue, Locke représente l’émancipation, mais lorsqu’il célèbre ou légitime l’esclavage, Locke devient alors un représentant de la désémancipation. En menant le combat contre le contrôle de la monarchie absolue, Locke affirme en réalité le pouvoir total des propriétaires sur leur propriété, et cela inclus les esclaves. Dans ce cas on peut clairement voir l’enchevêtrement entre émancipation et désémancipation. Le propriétaire devient plus libre, mais sa plus grande liberté signifie une dégradation des conditions de l’esclavage en général. Continue reading

Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo


Image: Photograph of the Paris barricade during the
1871 Commune, taken by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg


On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History
(2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full video of the interview can be found here.

Ross Wolfe:
How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, respectively, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another — paid and unpaid labor — isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either. Continue reading

Radical Bourgeois Philosophy Summer Reading Group

I am eagerly looking forward to the Platypus Affiliated Society’s New York chapter reading group for the summer, which will focus on “Radical Bourgeois Philosophy.”  Having already completed the main readings that lay the theoretical foundation for the group’s political outlook, I feel it will be profitable to better acquaint myself with the texts of classical liberalism and political economy.  Marxists, in their rejection of liberal democracy and bourgeois ideology, all-too-often forget the genuinely progressive legacy of liberalism and the revolutionary role played by the bourgeoisie in history.  This legacy is nowhere better illustrated than in the texts of some of their foremost thinkers — Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, Ricardo, and Nietzsche.  Marx’s own deep, if critical, respect for these thinkers (minus Nietzsche, who came later) cannot be ignored.

The following is the reading list and schedule for film screenings related to the subject:

Reading group and History of Humanity Film Screenings & Lectures

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 [PDF]

June 26 – August 21
New York University Puck Building
295 Lafayette St. 4th floor

We will address the greater context for Marx and Marxism through the issue of bourgeois radicalism in philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Discussion will emerge by working through the development from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, but also by reference to the Rousseauian aftermath, and the emergence of the modern society of capital, as registered by liberals such as Adam Smith and Benjamin Constant.

“The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possi- bilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . . As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.”

– James Miller (author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, 2000), Introduction to Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)


June 26 | 1PM

Chris Cutrone, “Capital in History”
Robert Pippin, “On Critical Theory” [HTML Critical Inquiry 2003]
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Film screening | 4:30PM

Marie Antoinette (2006)

June 30 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity pre-1750”

July 3 | 1pm

Rousseau, selection from The Social Contract

Film screening | 4:30PM

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

July 10 | 1pm

Adam Smith, selections from The Wealth of Nations
Volume I
Introduction and Plan of the Work
Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement…
I.1. Of the Division of Labor
I.2. Of the Principle which gives Occasion to the Division of Labour
I.3. That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market
I.4. Of the Origin and Use of Money
I.6. Of the Component Parts of the Price of Commodities
I.7. Of the Natural and Market Price of Commodities
I.8. Of the Wages of Labour
I.9. Of the Profits of Stock
Book III: Of the different Progress of Opulence in different Nations
 Of the Natural Progress of Opulence
III.2. Of the Discouragement of Agriculture in the Ancient State of Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.3. Of the Rise and Progress of Cities and Towns, after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.4. How the Commerce of the Towns Contributed to the Improvement of the Country
Volume II
IV.7. Of Colonies
Book V: Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth
V.1. Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth

Film screening | 4:30PM

Danton (1983)

July 14 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1750–1815”

July 17 | 1pm

Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns
Kant, “What is Enlightenment? ,” and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Film screening | 4:30PM

Amistad (1997)

July 24 | 1pm

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Kant, “On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, But it is of No Use in Practice” [HTML part 2]

July 31 | 1pm

Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128]

Film screening | 4:30PM

selected scene from Gettysburg (1993) “No Divine Spark” Glory (1989)

August 4 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1815–48”

August 7 | 1pm

Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History for Life [translator’s introduction by Peter Preuss]
Nietzsche, selection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

Film screening | 4:30PM

Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human (1999)

August 14 | 1pm

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic

Film screening | 4:30PM

Reds (1981)

August 21: Coda | 1pm

Marx, To make the world philosophical, Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978) pp. 9–11
Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existingMarx-Engels Reader pp. 12–15
Marx, Theses on FeuerbachMarx-Engels Reader pp. 143–145
Marx, On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish QuestionMarx-Engels Reader pp. 26–52
Marx, The coming upheaval [see bottom of section, beginning with “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass”] (from The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847), Marx-Engels Reader pp. 218–219
Marx and Engels, Communist ManifestoMarx-Engels Reader pp. 469–500