book cover imageLiberalism: A Counter-History
by Domenico Losurdo,
translated by Gregory Elliott.
London and New York: Verso Books, 2011.

Pages viii+375. $35.

Paradox and irony immediately confront the historian of liberalism. Commonly understood as the tradition of political thought and action that exalts the liberty of the individual, liberalism has, nevertheless, always included within its ranks men such as John C. Calhoun who have defended the institution of slavery. And these theorists have by no means been marginal or accidental to the liberal tradition, for, as Domenico Losurdo points out, none other than Lord Acton himself declared Calhoun’s writing to have been “the very perfection of political truth,” while, more significantly, the founders of liberalism—Grotius, Locke, and, in France, the Abbé Sièyes—were consistent in their view that the domination of colored man by white man was somehow written into the nature of things, and perhaps even thedesign of Providence. Alongside this paradox is the irony that the origins of liberalism lay in a revolt against the ecclesiastical and political absolutism of an ancien régime that more often than not protected non-Europeans from the worst excesses of exploitation and furnished some of the more striking early criticisms of liberalism, such as Dr. Johnson’s pointed question, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”

Through ten grueling chapters, Losurdo chronicles the ways in which the leading theorists of liberalism aided and abetted the building up of a “master-race democracy” in the antebellum United States and, afterwards, a world-wide “war” waged by the northern European empires of liberty against one another and for the colonial subjection of the rest of the world. There are indeed some chilling moments in his history that should give an unbiased reader considerable food for thought. John Locke, for instance, should have known better than to have equated the North American Indians with “savage beasts” and to have concluded from their bellicosity towards the English colonists that “they may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger.” Had he been a reader of the Jesuit Relations, he would have had ample means of correcting his judgment.

The case of Locke, however, is the one of Losurdo’s milder indictments. Jeremy Bentham’s plans for the surveillance of poorhouse inmates earns the label a “concentration-camp universe,” and, it would appear, with good reason, for Bentham averred that the “scruples of humanity” should not stand in the way of the decision to separate infants from their poor mothers. But the blood in the veins of the Abbé Sièyes ran icier still. The author of the Tennis Court Oath “imagined a ‘cross’ (croisement) between monkeys and ‘blacks’ for creating domesticated beings adapted to servile work, the ‘new race of anthropomorphic monkeys,’” about which he declared: “However extraordinary, however immoral this idea might seem at first sight, I have reflected on it at length, and can find no other way in a great nation, especially in countries that are very hot or very cold, to reconcile the directors of works with the simple instruments of labor.” And that more or less says it all: Arthur de Gobineau, Josiah Strong, Edward Eggleston, and the rest of the sorry band of racists and eugenicists that Losurdo trots out—try as they might—were unable to surpass the inhumanity of an apostate French priest.

Losurdo is a professor of philosophy at the University of Urbino and has, accordingly, written a history that will be of greater interest to theorists than to inquirers into the warp and woof of the capitalist domination of labor, whether enslaved or comparatively free. His study reposes upon an extensive reading of historical monographs detailing the treatment of non-Europeans by European imperialists of one stripe or another since the middle of the seventeenth century. The narrative that he constructs from these monographs is only an episodic one, however, for his chief concern is to provide a framework within which he can pillory the leading theorists of liberalism for their bad faith. Into the apparatus they are set, one by one, and heaps of their own utterances are thrown in their faces: Locke, Sièyes, and Bentham, as we have seen, but also Burke, Benjamin Constant, and, for double and even triple abuse, the mild and diffident Alexis de Tocqueville. Locke, the theorist of the expropriation of the native Americans, and Burke, the “tutelary deity of the slaveholding South,” were mere amateurs compared to Tocqueville, who is consistently cast by Losurdo as having turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the sufferings of slaves in the South, to prisoners throughout America, to the Irish in the United Kingdom, and to the poor generally at home and abroad. We “cannot but be even more surprised,” Losurdo comments, “by deTocqueville’s epistemological than his political naivety.”

He celebrated as the locus of liberty one of the few countries in the New World where racial chattel slavery reigned and flourished and which, at the time of the French liberal’s journey, had as its president Andrew Jackson, slave-owner and protagonist of a policy of deporting and decimating redskins; a president, moreover, who, blocking the circulation of abolitionist material by post, also struck at the freedom of expression of significant sections of the white community.

Naïveté, however, is not the only charge, for years later, in the wake of the 1848 revolution, Tocqueville “went so far as to attribute to ‘socialist doctrines’ the regulation and reduction of working hours,” when what the workers were then demanding was to work no more than twelve hours in a day. To this and to similar demands, Tocqueville’s response was unequivocal: “nothing authorizes the state to interfere in industry.” One is again reminded of the irony of a liberalism that championed the freedom of the wealthy, while the ‘reactionary’ school of Louis de Bonald and his followers throughout the nineteenth century called for the restoration of such staples of ancien régime life as guilds, common lands, Sunday rest, and permanent marriage, all measures that had protected workers and their families in one way or another.

Doubtless the defenders of Tocqueville, Burke, and the other theorists Losurdo groups together as representatives of liberalism will have their response. It does seem, however, that such defenders had better pick their premises carefully, for Losurdo, in a rather handsome imitation of Dr. Johnson, cuts deeply:

Who was more individualist? Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great protagonist of the slave revolution? Or Calhoun, the great U.S. theorist of the slaveholding South? Who demonstrated respect for the dignity of the individual as such? The black Jacobin who, taking the Declaration of the Rights of Man seriously, considered that it was always inadmissible to reduce a man to an object of ‘property’ of one of ‘his fellow men’? Or Jefferson, who kept silent about his doubts about slavery out of a conviction of white superiority and his concern not to endanger the peace and stability of the South and the Union? Who expressed individualism better? Mill and his English and French followers, who considered the subjection and even slavery (albeit temporary) of colonial peoples beneficial and necessary? Or the French radicals who began to question colonial despotism as such?

It is with the mention of radicalism that we arrive at the term of Losurdo’s argument. He does not hide his admiration for the radical tradition of Diderot, Condorcet, and Marx—though it is plainly a more humanistic Marx that he favors, as is suggested by his approbation for Oscar Wilde’s formulation of radicalism: “Individualism . . . is what through Socialism we are to attain.” Like Jonathan Israel, with whose massive trilogy on the Radical Enlightenment this study shares certain interpretive stances, Losurdo is committed to a universal project of emancipation, and he, too, is unafraid to declare that to this end some eggs must be cracked.

On the antepenultimate page of Liberalism: A Counter-History comes an extraordinary anecdote with which he purports to account for the “turning point” in the early history of the American movement of civil rights and desegregation. Leaning on C. Vann Woodward’s narrative of the Jim Crow laws, Losurdo points to a 1952 memorandum from the U.S. Department of Justice warning the Supreme Court that “racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” It was the outside pressure of the Red Threat, then, that set American Blacks free from the various forms of cultural oppression under which they had hitherto labored. However extraordinary this conclusion may or may not be, it pales in comparison to the one Losurdo puts forward by using it in turn as a premise:

On close examination, first slavery and then the terrorist regime of white supremacy were thrown into crisis by the San Domingo revolt and the October Revolution, respectively. The implementation of an essential principle, if not of liberalism then of liberal democracy (in the usual sense of the term), is inconceivable without the decisive contribution of two of the chapters of history most hated by the liberal culture of the time.

Yes, he is in earnest: it is Lenin we have to thank for the desegregation of our public schools.

Liberalism: A Counter-History is in manyways a study to be contended with: the role played by slavery in the origins of modernity does need to be examined forthrightly and condemned. It is a shame, therefore, that this volume should not only come to a conclusion with such a truly paradoxical affirmation as this last one about the Bolsheviks, but also be characterized by overwrought rhetoric throughout. There is plenty of tar here—“Burke did not tire of stressing the role of the Jews”—and feathers: “The foundation of the United States involved the advent of a racial state and an unprecedented consolidation of racial chattel slavery.”

More importantly, the poverty of the so-called “radical” tradition of Diderot and Marx does not sufficiently trouble him. For while he seems able to prove that to some degree liberal theorists from Grotius and Locke to Constant and Tocqueville have been the lackeys of those proud northern European capitalists who “dressed in a little brief authority” have played “such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep,” it is all the more true that Losurdo’s radicals have, to a man, been “most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence,” that is, his immortal soul. The experience of the Leftist regimes of the twentieth century and of the Culture of Death under which we now groan amply proves that there is no solution to the problem of man’s inhumanity to man that does not begin with the full and plain affirmation that each and every human being is a rational animal made in the image and likeness of God. Locke cannot help us here, for he was altogether too tepid and timid in his convictions. Diderot and Marx had not his qualms, but their materialistic accounts of human nature cannot justify the rights claims that Losurdo is so anxious to make, and if he truly wishes to bring help to the poor and the marginalized, he would do better to look to deeper sources of inspiration.  

Christopher O. Blum is Fellow and Dean of Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire.