Review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History

This was first published at New Left Project in two parts.

Review of Liberalism: a Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo (London: Verso, 2011)

Ed Rooksby  

1. Summary 

Beyond liberal hagiography

As Anthony Arblaster has pointed out, the history of liberalism has, in the main, been written by liberals and, consequently, liberalism tends to get a rather better press than it would probably otherwise enjoy (see Arblaster, 1984: p. ix). Indeed liberal definitions of liberalism are often more than faintly self-congratulatory – frequently, they consist of a list of Good Things that are taken to be the core, defining values and commitments of this political tradition. A typical list might include such values as liberty, respect for the individual, democracy, tolerance, human rights, scepticism and reason for example. Thus, in many liberal accounts, the historical rise of this political ideology is a story of unalloyed progress – the emergence, generalisation and consolidation of enlightenment and freedom.

Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History is written in deliberate opposition to this prevailing wisdom. His aim is to get beyond what he calls the ‘habitual hagiography’ and to present a much more critical account of liberalism and its historical rise to ascendancy. Losurdo is clear that one cannot adequately understand this political tradition (or, by extension, any other) simply with reference to proclaimed normative commitments in abstraction from the concrete social and political relations that liberalism actually established and found expression in. It is a peculiar characteristic of liberal thought, in fact, to assume that political ideas can be analysed and grasped in a state of more or less abstract purity with little or no reference to the concrete social conditions in which those ideas emerge and are manifested. Indeed it is only on this basis that liberalism can maintain its highly flattering view of itself. The history of liberalism as a political movement – as an evolving set of political practices (as well as of ideas) that established and reproduced a shifting series of concrete social relations – is, in fact, not a very pretty one as Losurdo shows. Analysed in this way the history of liberalism as a political movement is a history of coercive expropriation, violence, racism and exploitation as much as, if not even more than, it is a history of the unfolding extension of modern individual liberty, political rights and so on. Losurdo’s focus throughout remains very much on the dark side of liberal history since it is this that is consistently obscured and repressed in the prevailing historical narrative. It is in this sense that Losurdo’s book is a counter-history – it is intended as a corrective or a counterweight to liberal hagiography.

Liberal paradoxes

Losurdo’s counter-history begins with a paradox. The birth and early consolidation of the liberal political order – supposedly an order devoted to liberty – was accompanied by concurrent expansion and intensification of colonial slavery. Indeed the three countries that Losurdo identifies as the key pioneers of liberalism – Holland, England/Britain and America – were all deeply involved in the slave trade and in the direct employment of slave labour. It is not just that slavery and the slave trade persisted despite the success of liberal revolutions in these countries, Losurdo stresses, it is that slavery ‘experienced its maximum development following that success’ (p. 35).[1] For example, liberalism was decisively consolidated in England, according to Losurdo, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – by the mid-18th Century Britain owned more slaves than any other country. The institution of slavery reached its fullest development in America only after the victory of the revolutionary war of independence that established a new liberal political order in that country. Furthermore, the institution of slavery took on its most historically oppressive form in this period. In previous ages slavery was not always hereditary and, in addition, slaves could reasonably hope that they or their children might be able to achieve free status. The form of slavery that emerged with the liberal revolutions, however, was much more radical. This period saw slaves increasingly reduced to chattels and established slavery as a permanent, hereditary condition from which it was almost impossible to escape.  Furthermore, slavery under liberalism took on a racial character – the institution was increasingly justified by its apologists in terms of an ideology of white supremacy and the non- or sub-human status of black people. The ‘rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery’, Losurdo points out, ‘are the product of a twin birth’ (p. 37) – one cannot adequately understand the former in abstraction from the latter and vice versa.

A similar paradox emerges in relation to liberalism and colonialism. The core liberal states were deeply involved in territorial and colonial conquest (whether overseas in the case of Holland and England/Britain or in terms of continental expansion in the case of the United States). Indeed, colonialism reached its apogee with the diffusion and consolidation of liberalism across Europe in the late 19th Century. The spread of a doctrine supposedly committed to ideals of freedom and self-government, then, seems to have been very closely bound up with practices of invasion, conquest, violent subjection and domination of foreign peoples. Just as in the case of slavery colonial expansionism in the liberal period was closely intertwined with an ideology of racial supremacy. This racism often took murderous, even genocidal, forms. The victory of the American Revolution for example was followed by accelerated seizure of land from Native Americans on the part of white settlers – a process of territorial expansion that involved not just expropriation and expulsion but organised and deliberate massacre too. This was justified with reference to the alleged inferiority of ‘Indian’ peoples – branded as ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘wild beasts’.

The forms of intensified oppression and domination bound up with the rise of liberalism were not confined, however, to the colonies. Losurdo shows how the lives of what he calls ‘white servants’ and the poor in the metropolis underwent, in many ways, a marked deterioration in at least the early period of liberalism’s ascendancy. The late 17th Century and 18th Century, Losurdo points out (quoting R. H. Tawney), saw ‘“an attitude of unprecedented harshness spread in England towards wage labourers and the unemployed”’ (p. 33). This harshness towards the poor was reflected in increasingly draconian criminal penalties. From 1688 to 1820 the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to around 200-250 and almost all of these were crimes against property. From 1717 deportation of criminals – which amounted to a form of penal slavery – assumed major proportions. Particularly harsh treatment was meted out to beggars, vagrants and those unable to support themselves financially. The workhouse system which reached its fullest development in the 19th Century was, of course, deliberately designed to be ‘as odious as possible in order to reduce the number of those who sought refuge in them’ (p.72). Orphans and children of the poor were often sold on the market as virtual slaves. Interestingly, the gulf between masters and servants in the metropolis was often explained or justified in semi-racial terms. The lower classes were regarded as, more or less, a race apart – born to serve their natural masters like black slaves in the colonies.

Losurdo is clear that there is no straight-forward conflict between contemporary liberal thought on the one hand and the practice of liberal states or dominant classes within those states on the other. Indeed Losurdo draws out the various justifications and apologetics for slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, and class oppression propagated by a range of figures from the canon of liberal thought. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Locke (usually regarded as the father of liberalism) emerges as a particularly unpleasant theorist in this respect. Infamously, Locke’s Second Treatise seeks to justify the forcible expropriation of ‘Indians’ and indeed the destruction of those who resist. Locke’s brutal views, however, are far from exceptional or unusual amongst key figures in the liberal tradition. Jefferson, for example, called for the ‘extermination’ of Native Americans (and, of course, most of the major protagonists of the American Revolution were slave owners). Bentham was an enthusiast of the workhouse system – which, famously, he wanted to perfect along the lines of his ‘Panopticon’ design for total control and surveillance. In one of the greatest texts of liberal political philosophy, On Liberty, J. S. Mill seeks to justify (temporary) colonialism and European ‘despotism’ over ‘barbarians’.

Liberalism’s logic of exclusion

How do we make sense of this paradox at the heart of liberalism – the simultaneous invocation of liberty on the one hand and the justification and promulgation of severe forms of oppression on the other? The key to all of this, Losurdo argues, is to grasp that liberalism is founded on an implicit logic of exclusion. Only once we have understood this can we start to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. Liberalism has always pivoted, Losurdo argues, on drawing a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those who are worthy or capable (morally, intellectually, biologically/racially) of the gamut of rights and liberties we associate with liberalism and those who are not. Liberalism was always, of course, centrally concerned with the condemnation and limitation of despotic power and the corresponding assertion of rights to self-government, autonomy and so on – but this struggle was always waged by, and on behalf of, an exclusive section of humanity – what Losurdo terms ‘the community of the free’. The history of liberalism is thus in great part a history of how the particular specification and location of the boundary line between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded has evolved and shifted.

With this exclusionary logic in mind we can make sense of the paradoxes of liberal slavery, liberal empire and liberal authoritarianism towards wage labourers and the poor. In each of these three apparent paradoxes we are, in fact, confronting particular instances of the opposition between the justly free and the justly unfree. It is not that the brutal world of slavery, for example, represented a failure or negation of proclaimed liberal values, or revealed the hypocrisy of contemporary liberals, it is that the ‘community of the free’ in which the sphere of liberal rights and freedoms applied did not, and was not intended, to encompass black people. Liberalism, for Losurdo, was never a doctrine of moral universalism. We can see now, how racism and class contempt operated as necessary ideological supports for this system of exclusion. Slavery and colonial expropriation and domination was justified on the grounds that non-white peoples were by definition uncivilised, in a condition of ‘nonage’ (Mill), not fully human or even ‘savage beasts’ (Locke) and were thus rightly excluded from the ‘community of the free’. Similarly, workers and the poor in the metropolis were not intelligent, morally developed or, again, human enough to be admitted into the sacred space of the free community of liberals.

It is not just that liberalism was long characterised by exclusion for Losurdo – it is also that, to a great extent, the liberty of the community of the free has depended on the exclusion and oppression of the unfree. That is, the relationship between the community of the free and the excluded has been one of exploitation in which the privileges of the former have been rooted in the expropriation and coercion of the unfree. It is here that class relations come into play. The twin birth of liberalism and the slave trade is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the changing self-conception and growing confidence of a propertied class becoming increasingly wealthy from the slave trade and from direct exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. ‘The wealth and leisure…  [that this class] enjoyed, and the culture it thus managed to acquire’, Losurdo argues:

reinforced the proud self-consciousness of a class that became ever more intolerant of the abuses of power, the intrusions, the interference and the constraints of political power or religious authority. Shanking off these constraints, the planter and slave owner developed a liberal spirit and liberal mentality. (p. 38)

This explains the intensification of slavery with the victory of the liberal revolutions. The defeat of the British in America, for example, allowed the American ex-colonists to intensify their accumulation of wealth and power through the exploitation of slave labour once they had achieved political and economic autonomy – once the externally imposed constraints on this process of expanding riches and power had been removed. Similarly, the increasingly draconian measures of repression and control exerted over ‘white servants’ in the metropolis is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the rise and generalisation of capitalist property relations. As the bourgeoisie became wealthier they demanded greater political power and condemned the ‘interferences’ and ‘intrusions’ of the ancien regime. The consolidation of liberalism – i.e. the new capitalist political and social relations – in England in 1688 set the scene for an intensification of capitalist exploitation. As Marx pointed out a process of accelerated ‘primitive accumulation’ – the expropriation of peasants to make way for large landowners – took place after the Glorious Revolution. This augmented the wealth, power and self-confidence of the propertied class but also gave rise to the need to strictly discipline the dispossessed and the emerging class of urban wage-labourers with little material stake in the new order.

We can see, then, that liberalism brought freedom for some and unfreedom for others and that, indeed this freedom and unfreedom were mutually intertwined. Losurdo, indeed, argues that (as against the hagiography) the history of liberalism must be understood as a ‘tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation’ (p. 301) rather than as a story of progressively unfolding freedom. The exclusionary logic of the tradition means that it can be no other. Interestingly, Losurdo argues that this exclusionary logic is present in the historical beginnings of the term ‘liberal’ as a political label. In the period of liberalism’s rise, Losurdo shows, the term ‘liberal’ was defined by antithesis both to monarchical absolutism and to the plebeian mass. One finds the term associated, for example, with those who have received a ‘liberal education’ – a group who are contrasted with those labelled ‘mechanics’ or ‘common people’ (see pp. 241-6). From the start, then, the label ‘liberal’ has possessed elite and exclusive, class connotations.

Liberals and radicals

With the French Revolution a new political tradition Losurdo terms ‘radicalism’ started to emerge. This tradition has a complex relationship with liberalism for the author, but Losurdo tends to treat them as more or less clearly distinct traditions. The main line of division between liberals and radicals, for Losurdo, is that the latter were prepared to support and encourage ‘revolution from below’. Indeed it was the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolution in France that transformed that revolt from a liberal revolution into a radical one. France was not the only major geographical locus of this emerging radical tradition. The slave revolt in San Domingo (Haiti) and the revolutions in Latin America associated with Simon Bolivar also manifested and drove forward this new tradition for Losurdo. All three radical revolutions met with great hostility on the part of liberalism in general – indeed, a kind of cold war stand-off developed between the US and San Domingo/Haiti after the slave revolt.

The struggle for recognition and the evolution of liberalism

Much of the book is taken up with an account of how liberalism’s demarcation of the boundary between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded shifted and evolved over the centuries. From the 19th Century especially liberalism was increasingly transformed by the struggles of the excluded within the metropolis. Losurdo characterises this struggle (along with the emancipatory struggles of the colonised) as a ‘struggle for recognition’. These were struggles for inclusion – for a redrawing of the line of division between the ‘community of the free’ and the excluded. Liberals responded to these social struggles in a variety of ways. In response to working class demands for the vote, for example, it was asserted that further expansion of the political to encompass the enfranchisement of the poor was intolerable and, anyway, impossible – the demands ran counter to the ‘natural’ hierarchical order ordained by God. Once the working class had won political concessions, however, the liberal reaction fell back on a new line of defence. While political rights for the lower orders might now be tolerable, the extension of social and economic rights had to be resisted. It was now asserted that working and living conditions had no political relevance. In this way material class inequalities were expelled from the realm of the political.

Nevertheless, social and economic concessions were increasingly wrung from the liberal state. By the late 19th Century liberalism had split into two major factions. One of these was prepared to reform capitalism fairly significantly in response to the struggles of the excluded – this faction, associated with figures such as T. H. Green, become known as ‘the New Liberalism’ and eventually produced key 20th Century liberal reformers such as Keynes and Beveridge. Opposed to this faction was a group of liberals (such as Herbert Spencer and, later, Ludwig Von Mises) who opposed and resented the concessions granted by the New Liberals – this group held fast to a more classical conception of liberalism and invoked the inviolable liberal right of the property-owner to dispose of his property without state ‘interference’. From Losurdo’s perspective this latter faction sought, essentially, to shore up and reassert a sharp dividing line in the metropolis between the ‘community of the free’ (bourgeois property owners) and the excluded (workers, servants, the poor and so on).

2. Critique

Losurdo’s argument is certainly striking. Even those familiar with radical critique of liberalism and, indeed, with the historical crimes committed in liberalism’s name, will find some of the practices and political positions uncovered by the author shocking. Certainly, as counter-history, as a broadside against liberal hagiography, the book is highly effective. Furthermore, Losurdo’s core argument – that, more than anything else, liberalism is defined by an internal logic of inclusion/exclusion – is original and audacious. It is, in a sense, an inversion of the prevailing view in relation to this political tradition. Liberalism, for Losurdo, is not, at its heart, a doctrine of universal normative principles, but an exercise in separating the legitimately free from the legitimately unfree, masters from servants, ‘us’ from ‘them’ and thus it is fundamentally an ideology of domination. This is a powerful argument. Nevertheless, while I am sympathetic to much of what Losurdo argues I am also unconvinced by much of the book.

Losurdo’s method

Jennifer Pitts has rightly pointed out that much of Losurdo’s argument feels extraordinarily tendentious and ungenerous in relation to liberal thought. The book is, of course, a counter-history – and as such it is not really meant to provide a painstakingly ‘balanced’ picture – but, even so, the narrative that Losurdo constructs is, as Pitts suggests, much ‘more “counter” than history’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8). That is, the argument tends frequently to slide into highly polemical form in which there seems to be little room for historical objectivity. Further, the method Losurdo uses to construct his narrative often feels rather suspect. As Pitts remarks, Losurdo tends to ‘string together passages from a disparate set of thinkers in order to construct “liberal” positions’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8) in favour of a range of brutal, racist, elitist and otherwise unpleasant practices, prejudices and beliefs. But Losurdo’s choices of passages and quotations often seem highly selective and, thus, not necessarily very representative of liberal thought generally. Losurdo’s modus operandi, quite frequently, is to present a snippet of writing from two or three theorists or essayists on a particular subject and to suggest or imply rather breezily that these are typical of liberal thought as a whole – but we are often given no very good reason to believe that they really are typical. All in all the reader is frequently left with the nagging suspicion that the narrative Losurdo presents is distorted by an over-riding intention to show liberalism in the worst possible light on any given issue. In a discussion of liberalism and eugenics, for example, Losurdo refers to a disturbing line of thought on the part of Sieyès who envisaged a ‘“cross” between monkeys and “blacks” for creating domesticated beings adapted to servile work’ (p. 114). Losurdo refers to several other ideas for ensuring the hereditary reproduction of a docile servant class proposed or imagined by other liberal figures, but Sieyès’ is by far the most shocking. The clear implication is that Sieyès’ fantasy is in some way representative of broader liberal thinking at the time – but Losurdo provides no evidence that other liberals (let alone a significant number of them) would ever have countenanced such an idea.

Liberals, conservatives and radicals

Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example.[2] The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well.

The problem we encounter in relation to Losurdo’s treatment of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is inverted when it comes to his presentation of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism – the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated. One of the problems with Losurdo’s argument in this respect is that the radical tradition, in his schema, seems to arrive out of nowhere as a more or less fully formed and distinct political outlook at the time of the French Revolution. But where have these radical ideas suddenly come from? What were the historical conditions of their emergence? Why did they emerge precisely at this point? They cannot simply have appeared spontaneously out of nothing. Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to regard radicalism as, precisely, a radicalised form of what already existed – didn’t radicalism involve, in other words, a radicalisation of liberal ideas? One can certainly trace, for example, a clear line of continuity between the ‘liberal’ beginnings of the revolution in France, driven largely from above by a wealthy social elite seeking to limit the power of the monarch, and the more radical Jacobin phase. We are not dealing with two hermetically sealed revolutionary processes here – an entirely liberal one and an entirely radical one with no relation between the two even though one happened to occur immediately after the other and involved many of the same participants. Clearly the radical phase of the revolution grew directly out of the ‘liberal’ phase. The clear point of transition between the two phases comes, as Losurdo rightly points out, with the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolutionary process. But this intervention is best explained in terms of the popular masses seeking directly to stake a claim in the new order of liberty and equality that had been declared earlier in the revolution. Essentially, the radical phase sought to realise the universalist principles that had been declared in the earlier period more fully and consistently. The relationship between the two phases of the French Revolution provides us, it seems to me, with a pretty good indication of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism more broadly. The two traditions are not sharply distinct from each other at all – radicalism emerges from within the liberal tradition and involves, furthermore, a radicalisation of liberal ideas and principles.

Exclusion as the defining feature of liberalism?

This brings us to the central part of Losurdo’s argument – his view that liberalism is defined by its implicit logic of exclusion. If radicalism did emerge from liberalism then it must follow that there is something much more substantial to liberalism than a core logic of exclusion – there must be some coherent ideological and normative content over and above its tendency to exclude, to be radicalised. Clearly, it is true that the history of liberalism has been marked by systematic exclusion as Losurdo ably shows – but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that exclusion is the core, defining feature of the tradition.

It is possible in fact (without falling into the trap of hagiography) to identify certain long running commitments on the part of liberalism in terms of ideas, values and principles. Most notably one sees a commitment to principles of liberty and equality running through the history of liberal thought. These principles crop up time and again in liberal political philosophy. These political commitments are, in addition, typically rooted in an underlying philosophical individualism. All political traditions are, in my view, based on a particular conception and theory of human nature and society – the core political commitments and values of any given tradition flow from, and are shaped by, that tradition’s particular conception of the nature of humanity. In the liberal approach human beings are, first and foremost, individuals. This foundation is simultaneously ontological and ethical. That is, it sees the human individual as more fundamental and more real, than society, and at the same time regards the individual as much more morally valuable than any collective entity. The commitment to liberty, then, is usually conceived in radically individualist terms – one exercises one’s freedom as a fundamentally self-sufficient individual. This is where the traditional liberal emphasis on individual rights and to freedom from government or social interference in the ‘private sphere’ comes from. The liberal view of individual liberty in itself implies equality. Liberal individuals are equal primarily in terms of their individuality. They are equally unique. This ontological and ethical worldview, then, and the normative commitments to liberty and equality (or a particular individualistic conception of those principles), is what defines liberalism as a political philosophical tradition.[3]

Losurdo rejects this sort of view – he argues that liberalism cannot possibly be defined in these terms because, historically, it rode roughshod over these principles in relation to the treatment of slaves, colonial peoples and the poor. Where was liberal liberty and equality for slaves, he asks, and how was the individuality of vagrants and Native Americans respected? In practice all of these groups were excluded. But this is precisely the issue. In practice these subaltern and dominated groups were excluded from the core principles that liberalism proclaimed for itself. So exclusion is a major feature of the history of liberalism – and Losurdo is right that we can’t grasp the concrete history of the tradition in any adequate or, indeed, in any honest way without acknowledging that terrible fact – but it is not the defining feature.

It is, in part, the particularly abstract terms in which liberalism conceives of its own core values and the similarly abstract conception of human nature that underpins these values that provides the conceptual space for exclusion and subordination in practice. Liberal philosophical individualism and the individualist conceptions of liberty and equality that flow from this basis typically take little account of concrete social relations and substantive, material inequalities of wealth and power. Class relations are largely invisible in this schema. Liberalism’s typical refusal to descend from realms of high philosophical abstraction allows it to claim, quite happily, that liberal society embodies universal liberty and equality even while actually existing liberal society is marked by deep inequalities, by relations of mastery and subjection in the realm of production and by systemic exploitation. It is this feature of liberalism, indeed, that Marx identifies in his critique of the ‘formally’ free and equal citizen of bourgeois society – liberal thinking here, provides an ideological mask for class exploitation by obscuring and refusing to acknowledge the concrete conditions in which human individuals actually live and work.

Beyond this, however, it is often more than clear that much classical liberal theory expends a lot of energy in trying to rationalise and explain away actually existing exclusion. Locke spends much of his time, for example, trying to square slavery, expropriation and exploitation with the basic principles he also espouses – the liberty and equality of ‘Man’. This, it is probably fair to say is the whole point of his theoretical endeavours. He is trying to justify the concrete forms of class and racial oppression that he supports and to reconcile these (through various theoretical acrobatic contortions) with the core normative principles he claims to espouse. So it is possible to argue, then, that much liberal philosophy is driven by the fundamental tension between liberalism’s core normative commitments, on the one hand, and the way in which liberal society is founded on relations of oppression and exploitation on the other. Liberal philosophy, in other words, is continually engaged in an agonised and never-ending process of trying to square a circle. That is one reason why there is so much of it.

So exclusion, here, emerges as something that has to be continually explained away and rationalised in relation to liberal values rather than as, in itself, a core commitment. One can see the tension between exclusion and principle in the attacks of guilty conscience that occasionally afflict liberal thinkers. Losurdo himself points to such bad conscience on the part of liberals in relation to the oppressive politico-social relations that ‘most blatantly gave the lie to their proclaimed attachment to the cause of liberty’ (p. 278). Here, indeed, Losurdo lets slip liberal attachment to a universal normative principle – notwithstanding the reference to this attachment being a ‘lie’, the mismatch between proclaimed principle and concrete reality seems to be a matter of some importance. The proclaimed attachment is indeed a keenly felt one and the failure to live up to it is seen as a matter of real distress. This sort of bad conscience on the part of liberals is inexplicable if exclusion really is the central commitment at the heart of liberalism. If so, what is all the guilt and embarrassment about?

It is also quite difficult to explain the successes of the ‘struggle for recognition’ waged by the excluded unless we understand that this struggle drew on the normative resources provided by liberalism itself. From where did these struggles draw their moral force and power? The struggle for recognition was not just a matter of force (though that was a crucially important part of it) it was also a matter of shaming social elites and winning support from some of them – a process of moral persuasion and of winning the argument. It is precisely because liberalism proclaims universal values for itself – commitment to liberty and equality for all – that these values provide a kind of ideological-ethical ammunition for struggle on the part of those who are, in practice, subjected to conditions of unfreedom and inequality. Groups who are in reality excluded from the realm of liberal equality and freedom can draw on the stated or implicit universalism of these liberal principles and demand their inclusion.[4] The ‘struggle for recognition’ Losurdo describes then seems to have been dependent on some sort of universalist ethical and normative core to the liberal tradition over and above its exclusionary practices.

Absences and omissions

Another set of shortcomings in Losurdo’s book relates to absences and omissions. For one thing, several major figures in the history of liberal thought receive only minor walk on roles in the narrative or do not appear at all. Kant for example is surely a major figure in liberal philosophy. Yet he receives scant attention in this book. Perhaps the cursory attention he gets is related to the fact that Losurdo has to admit that (because of his condemnation of slavery and colonialism and his enthusiasm for the revolution in France), Kant ‘came close to radicalism’ (p. 178), which, given Kant’s indisputable importance within the liberal tradition, seems to throw Losurdo’s rather arbitrary distinction between radicals and liberals into confusion and also threatens to undermine the argument about the centrality within liberalism of commitment to exclusion. It is also rather strange that liberal economics is hardly mentioned at all. The history of liberal economic theory is a hugely important aspect of the history of the liberal tradition as a whole – it is surprising that it is largely ignored.

In addition relatively recent developments within liberal political philosophy are left out of the picture altogether. There is a very brief discussion of 20th Century liberalism but Losurdo’s narrative does not extend beyond 1914 in any detail and does not extend beyond 1945 at all. This, needless to say, means that a great deal of liberal thought is ignored altogether. Of course, the production of a fully comprehensive history of liberalism would have been a mammoth endeavour and could not possibly have been squeezed into one book. Nevertheless the book seems to come to a rather abrupt halt somewhere in the early 20th Century and the rationale for this stopping off point is never adequately explained. I would like to have seen how Losurdo believes his liberal logic of exclusion has evolved and developed in recent times – what are the continuing manifestations, effects and legacies of this logic today? It would also have been interesting to have seen how Losurdo situates recent egalitarian liberal political philosophy of the Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian type in relation to his argument about exclusion. I suspect that Losurdo would have had great difficulty in integrating contemporary liberal theory into his overall schema – is this, perhaps, one reason why his history ends where it does?

Conclusion

Overall, the book has much to recommend it. For one thing, Losurdo provides a valuable corrective to what he calls the hagiography – setting out, in great detail, the dark side of liberal thought and practice. For critics of liberalism, the book provides a useful compendium of the crimes of the liberal era and also of the more unpleasant things that liberal theorists have advocated and defended. The book will probably become a major ‘go to’ source of references for anyone seeking a choice quotation in which the unacceptable face of liberalism is revealed in its full ugliness. Nevertheless, many of Losurdo’s key arguments are not persuasive. The core argument in relation to the logic of exclusion that Losurdo believes really defines this tradition is an unusual and interesting one. While exclusion has certainly been a major feature of the history of liberalism (a fact much obscured by the hagiography) I do not believe that it is correct to regard this as the central and defining commitment at the heart of the liberal tradition. Instead it makes more sense, in my view, to regard liberalism as a political tradition defined by a long-running commitment to two core universal normative commitments – liberty and equality – which are, in turn, rooted in a radically individualist ontology. These principles are imbued with an inherently subversive quality in that they are always implicitly in conflict with social structures and institutions that manifest inequality and oppression. The history of the liberal era – which saw the consolidation and rapid growth of capitalism and, in its early phases (as part of this process of consolidation and growth), slavery and colonialism – has thus been one of permanent tension between the core principles liberalism has espoused and the supposed institutionalisation of these principles in the structures of liberal society. The problem for those whose interests have lain in the maintenance and defence of exploitation has been that those in practice excluded from the realm of liberal liberty and equality can appeal to liberal principles in order to demand inclusion – and with each rectification of injustice, further injustices are exposed and other oppressed groups are inspired to struggle for their own liberation too. Thus the age of liberalism is characterised not merely by exclusion but also by a process of permanent revolution in which a series of social groups – slaves, women, workers – rise up to stake their claim to liberty and equality. In this process liberal ideals are pushed forward and made progressively realised more fully by the struggles of the marginalised. Liberalism has never just been a simple legitimating ideology for the powerful and wealthy – drawing and justifying crude dividing lines between the free and unfree – as Losurdo’s argument suggests it has been. On the contrary, liberalism has always been a battleground – a shifting terrain of struggle on which a war between masters and servants, exploiters and exploited has been fought out.

References

Arblaster, Anthony. 1984. The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Balibar, Etienne. 1994. Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx. London: Routledge.

Balibar, Etienne. 2004. “Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible? New Reflections on Equaliberty”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103: 2/3 (Spring/Summer), 311-22.

Callinicos, Alex. 2000. Equality. Cambridge, England: Polity.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: a Counter-History. London: Verso.

Pitts, Jennifer. 2011. “Free for all”, Times Literary Supplement, September 23rd 2011.

Rooksby, Ed. (forthcoming). “The Relationship between Liberalism and Socialism”, Science & Society.

Seymour, Richard (2011) ‘Liberals and Reactionaries’, on ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ [available: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/10/liberals-and-reactionaries.html]


[1] All quotations specifying page numbers only are quotations from Losurdo’s book.

[2] On this see Richard Seymour’s blog-post on Losurdo’s book – Seymour, 2011.

[3] This argument is developed in more depth in a forthcoming article in Science & Society (see references). See also Arblaster, 1984.

[4] For similar arguments developed in much more depth, see Balibar, 1994 and 2004, and Callinicos, 2000. See also Rooksby (forthcoming).

  1. #1 by Ross Wolfe on May 5, 2012 - 4:37 am

    Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

  2. #2 by David Airth on April 26, 2013 - 6:55 pm

    Thanks for the review. I was wondering what the book was about. It doesn’t make Liberal history look very good. But liberals have changed their spots. They don’t behave that way anymore. At least liberals engaged and changed the world, whereas conservatives were happy to leave things the way they were, stagnant, with autocratic monarchies and stifling religions.

    As you point out conservatism was quite absent in Domenico Losurdo’s book. I’ve always thought of conservatism to be the handmaiden of liberalism, preserving the best of liberal ideas. There isn’t a lot of life or dynamism in conservatism. Conservatism amounts to an equilibrium. In thermodynamics equilibrium represents the ‘end’. That is why the world is by habit and necessity liberal, because it is an open system and vital.

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