Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61

By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] 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

For Liberty and Union: An interview with James McPherson

Originally published in
Platypus Review 53 | February 2013

Spencer A. Leonard

Spencer A. Leonard interviewed noted Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), to discuss the new Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The interview was broadcast on January 29, 2013 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This constituted an important culmination in the long struggle for the abolition of slavery. What, in brief, is the background to the Proclamation in terms of the long struggle for free labor in North America stretching back to the Revolution and into colonial times? Was the destruction of slavery in America simply a matter of coming to terms with an original American sin or a lingering hypocrisy? Or had the course of history in the 19th century posed the question of chattel slavery in a way that it had not done for the generation of the American Enlightenment and Revolution?

James McPherson: Well, in the first place, slavery was not a uniquely American sin. It had existed in many societies over many centuries even prior to its first introduction into Virginia in 1619. In subsequent decades, slavery took deep root in all of the British North American colonies, as it did in the Caribbean and in South America, where in fact slavery was much more deeply entrenched than it was in most parts of North America.

But starting in the third quarter of the 18th century, a variety of forces began to call the morality and validity of slavery into question — cultural forces and intellectual forces and economic forces. The Enlightenment and, with it, the Age of Revolution — the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America — these began to attack the philosophical and economic underpinnings of slavery. In the northern states of the new American nation, the Revolution led to a powerful anti-slavery movement which by about 1800 had eliminated slavery or had begun to eliminate slavery from all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Haitian Revolution beginning in the 1790s liberated that island, albeit violently.

So, there was a gathering movement against slavery in the Western world that had a significant effect in the United States, generating a strong anti-slavery movement first among the Quakers, then spreading. It extended not only to the North but to the South as well, reaching a kind of culmination in the 1830s with the beginning of the militant Abolitionist movement — William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Gradually, that impulse spread into a political movement, first with the Liberty Party in 1840 and then with the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in the middle 1850s. Together these developed what historian Eric Foner talked about many decades ago as a “free labour ideology.” That politics created a sense of two socioeconomic orders in the United States: One in the North based on free labour with social mobility, a dynamic entrepreneurial society; the other in the South based on slavery, which since the 1780s had become more deeply entrenched.

In the 18th century there was a widespread sense that slavery would disappear. The Founding Fathers, who formed the Constitution in 1787, assumed that slavery would soon die out. This is why they were willing to make certain compromises with the slave states to get them to join the new nation. Though the Constitution-makers assumed that slavery would probably die out soon, quite the opposite happened in the South, starting in the 1790s and early 1800s with the spread of the Cotton Kingdom, which meant that in the very decades that slavery was disappearing in the North and a strong anti-slavery movement was developing in the first half of the 19th century, the institution was becoming much more deeply entrenched in the South. That generated a whole series of cultural, social, and political justifications for the institution of slavery. By the middle of the 19th century the two sections had come to a kind of face-off with each other over the question of the expansion of slavery, which had been made an acute problem by the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War. A bitter struggle ensued, starting in 1854, over the territories that had originally been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the whole question of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories that were not yet states became acute in the 1850s. So, in a sense, the anti-slavery impulse that had deep roots going back into the latter part of the 18th century was coming into a collision course with a pro-slavery impulse that had become pretty powerful by the 1830s and 1840s in the slave states. This led to the showdown in 1860, with Lincoln’s election and the secession of the southern states. Continue reading

21st century social-democracy? On Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase’s “The Welfare State of America” and the election

The Welfare State

Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase of Jacobin recently co-authored a social democratic manifesto entitled “The Welfare State of America,” in which they conclude:


The Left must not only defeat austerity and preserve the social safety net; it must do so in such a way that assembles the forces necessary for more fundamental transformations in the future.

This vision should be premeditated. We can’t go back to the post-war golden age of the American welfare state, but we can build a system in the 21st century that embodies what people remember most from that era — an overriding sense of freedom. Freedom to give their children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible healthcare. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.

These memories are somewhat false ones: The welfare state has never been so universal. But the appeal of such a society, combined with the political strategy needed to make it a reality, will pave the way for the institution of a new set of economic and social rights to complement our bedrock political and civil rights.

Ugh.  From Chavez’s “21st-century socialism” to Sunkara and Frase’s “21st-century social-democracy.”  Not to mention the fetishization of the welfare state, and its national(ist) specification to “of America.”

Obviously I oppose the austerity-mongering politics of neoliberalism.  Equally obvious should be that I’m not as optimistic as Bhaskar or Peter about the prospects of social democracy repackaged for a new century.  They make the salutary concession that the welfare state was never universal, that the New Deal coexisted with brutal and demeaning Jim Crow laws.  But I don’t really view a reformist platform as any more viable in the present than a revolutionary platform.  Reformism and revolutionism seem equally utopian today (and I would say that their apparently equidistant impossibility is related).   Though I’m sure Bhaskar and Peter would insist, following André Gorz, that they are simply advocating a series of “non-reformist reforms.”  Rosa Luxemburg had a much more accurate formulation for this, but one I think the authors would reject: “revolutionary reforms,” or demanding what reforms were available while constantly insisting upon the need for dramatic social transformation.  And in fact the reason so many reforms were acquired in the first half of the twentieth century was symptomatic of the fact that social revolution seemed to be a concrete possibility.  Unapologetic neoliberalism is only possible where there is no fear of revolutionary reprisal.  I’m more or less in agreement with Spencer Leonard’s take in the 2001 section on “The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century”:

The abandonment of emancipatory politics in our time has not been, as past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformism.  Rather, because the revolutionary overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead.  As the task of achieving human society beyond capital has been abandoned, nothing worthy of the name of politics takes its place, nor could it.  The project of freedom has now altogether receded from view.

Social democracy and the reestablishment/renovation of the welfare state would obviously be a progressive program from where we stand right now.  I don’t think it’s anywhere close to sufficient, and the fact that social democracy and “evolutionary socialism” represented an adaptation to rather than an overcoming of capitalism (and thus, at least historically, signaled a shift to the Right) shouldn’t be forgotten.  Advocating a rebranded version of bourgeois-liberal social democracy as represented by Bernstein, Kautsky, or Keynes (though the figures they invoke are Cloward and Piven) seems to me just as false as neoliberals like Hayek or Friedman caricaturing classical liberals like Smith and Ricardo.  To his credit, these are subjects that Bhaskar and others (Jason Schulman,  Adrian Bleifuss Prados, Chris Cutrone) explored a few years ago on Chris Maisano’s The Activist website in Sunkara’s Nietzschean “Beyond Good and Evil,” Schulman’s  “The Current Relevance of an Old Debate,” and again in Sunkara’s “The Crisis: Marx, Lenin, Keynes, and Us.”  These were discussions that I actually found much more interesting than the recent manifesto about “The Welfare State of America,” not out of some fascination with historical trivia, but because the political implications of these debates are actually much far-reaching.

Jacobin certainly has DSA tendencies within it, and certainly Bhaskar has always been upfront about his membership in the DSA and sympathies with its politics (though I’ve spoken with one of Jacobin‘s editors who is convinced he’s a Trotskyist).  Bhaskar’s told me that the Jacobin collection that’s coming out in a few months from Metropolitan publishers is going to have an explicitly left social-democratic bent, but apparently he’s planning to spell that out openly in the introduction he’ll write for it.  Peter Frase has also been clear as to his ties to the DSA.  But one member, even a chief editor, does not a magazine make.  They’ve published diverse viewpoints, from (pseudo-)anarchists like Malcolm Harris to autonomists like Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider from Viewpoint to cultural/market socialists like James Livingston of Politics and Letters and even to Castroists like Louis Proyect of the Unrepentant Marxist blog.  It’s very inclusive.  Even if it were just an organ of the DSA, at least they’d be staying fairly honest about the prospects of overthrowing the state, abolishing capital, etc. I’ll take that over militant posturing that pretends like revolution is just around the corner.  Chris Maisano, for example, is a really interesting guy to talk to, and a really great guy in general.  He’s also fully aware of “the limitations of democratic socialism.”  As he wrote in a 2010 piece:

the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or “socialist capitalism” as Michael Harrington more accurately described it[, is that it’s] a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that’s made on capitalism’s terms. As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, “the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists…In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social democratic ministers…economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will.”

This doesn’t mean that social democracy is somehow bad — I’d give my right arm and possibly a couple of other vital organs if it would turn the United States into a social democratic country.  It just means that in spite of its many virtues — virtues that Judt is correct in celebrating — social democracy cannot be an end in itself but a way station toward a more fundamental transformation of society.

This is the sentiment Sunkara and Frase echo in the last line of their article:

Even greater democratic horizons lie beyond [the welfare state].

To be honest, I don’t understand the affinity either Sunkara or Frase feel in their historical association with Jacobinism (via the magazine they edit, Jacobin), as their politics seem to me as anything but revolutionary in the sense of the Jacobin club.  Still, an article like this is helpful in terms of prompting reflection and debate. Continue reading

Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism

The world revolution of 1848 marked a turning point in the history of the Left.  By and large, the old political categories were thrown into crisis.  A number of the terms that had up to that point held common currency now proved to be utterly inadequate to the task of describing the social reality that emerged.  Just as 1789 had introduced a new vocabulary to European political discourse, so did 1848 refine and build upon this prior language of revolution.  Herein lies the root of Losurdo’s error: his misrecognition of the liberalism of the past as the liberalism of the present.  By reifying liberalism in its present, thoroughly reactionary form — particularly as the Austrian neoliberalism of Hayek and Mises[272] — Losurdo denies that it ever had a truly revolutionary role to play.  He equivocates on the issue of liberalism’s merits, offering only backhanded praise — expressing his admiration for its ability to “learn from its opponent” (i.e. radicalism)[273] and a vague appreciation for its doctrine of the limitation of state power.[274]  Certainly, there is no reason to prefer one historical definition of “liberalism” to another.  Yesterday’s liberalism should be afforded no special dignity over its present-day counterpart.  But since it is historical relationships that are at issue here, and not some transhistorical doctrine of politics that obtains past, present, and future, it is incumbent upon the historian to trace out its subtle mutations and shifts of meaning over time.  To try and extract some sort of immutable “essence” out of the multivalent historical significance of liberalism is a fruitless venture.  This means that one must pursue exactly the opposite method from the one implied by Losurdo’s insistent rhetorical repetition of the metaphysical question, “What is liberalism?”

Unfortunately, Losurdo is hardly alone in committing this fallacy.  Numerous leftish scholars and academics — such as C.B. Macpherson, Uday Singh Mehta, and Theodore Koditschek, to name a few — have offered similarly one-sided appraisals of liberalism’s legacy.  Their insensitivity to the variety of meanings “liberalism” historically possessed may be excused by the limited scope of their inquiries, however.  None, except for maybe Macpherson, has attempted to paint liberalism with such broad strokes as Losurdo.  Even then, Macpherson was mostly just interested in disavowing an earlier form of liberalism, so-called “possessive individualism,” the political theory of which had been expounded by primarily English philosophers from Hobbes to Locke.[275]  While he acknowledges that thinkers like Locke, Bentham, and James Mill understood the relation of capital to wage-labor better than their successors J.S. Mill and T.H. Green,[276] Macpherson clearly favors the latter two as providing a stronger ethical foundation for modern liberal-democracy.[277]  As for Mehta, his focus is clearly on a very specific phase of liberalism, a phase in which liberal politics became closely entwined with colonialism — namely, liberalism in power.  Though he does not delineate an explicit timeline of the phenomena he is investigating, the vast majority of Mehta’s source material dates from the second half of the nineteenth century.  Once again, this tends to confirm the periodization set forth in the present essay.  Most of the events Mehta deals with fall under the period of reactionary liberalism, from 1848 to 1873 or 1884, the period immediately following the moment liberalism first came into in crisis.[278]  Mehta suggests about as much by the subtitle of his book.[279]  Likewise, Koditschek’s study of Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination takes up “nineteenth-century visions of a greater Britain,” taking Mehta’s earlier research into the topic as its point of departure.[280]  Accordingly, he does not claim to have unearthed some hidden matrix of domination buried deep within the essence of liberalism.  Only Losurdo is sufficiently ambitious to attempt such a feat.

Oddly enough, it is Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been known to sometimes smooth over the subtler gradations separating one epoch from another, who proves himself the most perceptive here.  In his 1995 reflection on politics After Liberalism, he explains the complex web of concepts and meanings as they existed from the great French Revolution of 1789 up to the June insurrection of 1848.  Many of the distinctions that today are taken for granted, Wallerstein points out, emerged only subsequently.  He writes:

Liberalism was the ideological response to conservatism.  The very term liberal (in noun form)… emerged only in the first decade of the nineteenth century.  Generally speaking, in the period of 1848, there was a blurred field of persons who overtly (or covertly, in the case of the English) supported the ideals of the French Revolution.  The field included persons with such diverse labels as republicans, radicals, Jacobins, social reformers, socialists, and liberals.

In the world revolution of 1848, there were really only two camps, the Party of Order and the Party of Movement, representing, respectively, conservative and liberal ideology, or, if one wishes to use another terminology with origins in the French Revolution, the Right and the Left.  It was only after 1848 that socialism emerged as a truly distinctive ideology different from, and opposed to, liberalism.[281]

As Wallerstein makes clear, the paths of socialism and liberalism at this point — in 1848, that is — diverged.  What had been a more or less undifferentiated camp of opposition to the status quo was now rent asunder by the force of its own internal contradictions.  The familiar “trimodal” political constellation of conservatism — liberalism — socialism, as Wallerstein refers to it, crystallized in this moment.[282]  Against Losurdo’s contention that liberalism and radicalism arose out of completely separate and distinguishable streams of thought, the interpretation offered in this essay argues that these two political traditions share a common origin.  They only became identifiably distinct after the traditional order of the ancien régime seemed to have finally been vanquished.  Bourgeois liberal thought, which had up to that time opposed the system of legal privileges that existed in the old state apparatus — the Ständestaat, or “polity of estates”[283] — was forced to face up to its own internal antagonisms, now that the despotism of the clergy, the nobility, and absolute monarchy had been swept away.  Only then did liberalism turn reactionary, suppressing the further development of the freedoms it had helped bring into being.  This was Marx’s perspective as he expressed it in a letter written to Engels in 1854, just as he was reading the French liberal Augustin Thierry’s History of the Formation and Progress of the Third Estate.  Marx wrote to his friend:

A book that has interested me greatly is Thierry’s Histoire de la formation et du progrès du Tiers État.  It is strange how this gentleman, le père of the “class struggle” in French historiography, inveighs in his Preface against the “moderns” who, while also perceiving the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, purport to discover traces of such opposition as far back as the history of the tiers-état prior to 1789.  He is at great pains to show that the tiers-état comprises all social ranks and estates save the noblesse [the nobility or Second Estate] and clergé [the clergy or First Estate] and that the bourgeoisie plays the role of representative of all these other elements.  Quotes, for example, from Venetian embassy reports:

“These that call themselves the Estates of the realm are of three orders of persons, that of the clergy, of the nobility, and of the rest of those persons who, in common parlance, may be called the people.”  [Vol. 1, pg. 3].  Had M. Thierry read our stuff, he would know that the decisive opposition between bourgeoisie and peuple does not, of course, crystallize until the former ceases, as tiers-état, to oppose the clergé and the noblesse.  But as for the “racines dans l’histoired’un antagonisme né d’hier”[roots in history…of an antagonism born yesterday], his book provides the best proof that the origin of the “racines coincided with the origin of the tiers-état.[284]

What is perhaps most remarkable about Marx’s comments on Thierry’s text is the almost bemused sense of appreciation they seem to express toward the French liberal’s insights.  At the same time, they show none of the biting wit or withering condemnation that Marx typically unleashed upon authors whose works he criticized.  Instead, his attitude toward Thierry might even be characterized as forgiving, or at the very least understanding of the epistemic limitations of the historical epoch in which he was writing.  The tone of Marx’s criticisms here display his recognition of the fact that, in the words of Postone, “forms of consciousness and the very mode of their constitution vary historically and socially.”  As a result, Marx realized that “[e]ach social formation…requires its own epistemology.”[285]  To put it another way, Marx did not see his own work as a refutation of the arguments or ideas with which Thierry was grappling.  Rather, he understood his work to constitute a clarification of these same arguments and ideas. Spencer Leonard, in a recent paper he delivered on this topic, pointed out that “even before 1848, Marx and Engels saw that the fraught (and seemingly intractable) question of liberalism’s relationship to socialism had become ‘the true object of philosophy.’”[286]  In stressing this point, Leonard explained, he only meant “to emphasize what, in the long death-agony of Marxism, most Marxists fail to appreciate: namely, Marxism’s immanence to liberalism.”[287]

Socialism, or what may be called the truth of liberalism, thus did not simply represent the attempt to abolish bourgeois society.  To no less of an extent did socialism represent the attempt to realize bourgeois society’s nearly fathomless potential.  Marxism, as the most sophisticated and consistent expression of this attempt, may therefore be said to be classical liberalism’s truest heir.  By contrast, the various successor ideologies whose thought most superficially resembles the ideals of the old liberalism — Keynesian/Fordist liberalism and Austrian neoliberalism — should be regarded as the falsification of the old liberalism, no more than two different species of its untruth.  Returning to the question of what ever became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after 1848, or where its historic commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles went, the answer thus presents itself.  Forsaken by those who had called themselves liberals, liberalism’s emancipatory project fell to socialism, which thereby also inherited its commitment to advance the cause of liberty and equality throughout the world.  Not only this, however.  Marxian socialism aimed, moreover, to achieve these principles at a higher level than the founders of classical liberalism could have ever imagined.  This might seem to contradict the empirical fact that liberal freedoms, both positive and negative (ancient and modern), have been extended further today than at any prior point in history.  But this does nothing to change the fact that humanity remains unequal and unfree.  Even that which commonly passes for liberty or equality in the present proves woefully impoverished, a mere shadow of what these words once meant.  And insofar as Marxists today look with scorn upon the tradition of classical liberalism, they too pass into untruth.  Or, as Engels once put it in a rousing speech, recalling the great bourgeois revolutionaries of ages past: “If that mighty epoch, these iron characters, [do] not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”[288]

Continue to Notes to “The Truth of Liberalism”