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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/An exposé of classic liberalism? A reply to Domenico Losurdo

An exposé of classic liberalism? A reply to Domenico Losurdo

Henry Flynt

Platypus Review 49 | September 2012


THE INTERVIEW WITH DOMENICO LOSURDO in Platypus Review 46, which coincided with translation into English of his book Liberalism: A Counter-History, seems to be part of a broader attempt to raise the estimation of him as theoretician of the Left.[1] His role as a new standard-bearer for the Left, however, does not especially interest me. I am interested in the central claims of Liberalism that the interviewers should have—but failed—to challenge him on. I judge him by a standard different from those who are now urging him on.

Liberalism is expressly a polemic against the policy architects of what might be variously called the democratic republic, bourgeois democracy, or liberal society. Losurdo gives his derogation of bourgeois democracy a twist: he brackets it with the rehabilitation of absolute monarchy. That the interviewers in the Platypus Review and editors of the International Socialist Review (ISR) allowed this claim to go without comment reflects the Left’s rapidly expanding bloc with medieval social regression against the center.

Losurdo enjoys castigating the classic republican Framers from a vantage point of unassailable moral superiority. However, at no point does he contend with the legacy of actually existing world Communism, either at the level of politics or morality. What does it mean that Russia and China, once kingpins of the Left, are now capitalist destinations? Losurdo represents a Left that is content simply to forget world Communism and the one hundred million unnatural deaths it was responsible for. It is a Left that cannot ask, “Was it justified that Communist China transformed itself into a capitalist powerhouse by way of the unnatural deaths of fifty million of its citizens?” Evidently, all Losurdo can do with this history is sweep it aside.

Losurdo uses slavery as an emblem of unimaginable horror. This alone raises a deep question about historiography. The horrors humans inflict on each other—serfdom, war, immiseration, and so on—by empire cannot be treated idiosyncratically, as if it were simply a crime perpetrated by a set of individuals. What is needed, rather, is a form of history adequate to explain the scope and scale of such horrors. Until recent times, slavery was customary. Adam Smith pointed out in his lectures on jurisprudence that the only part of the world in which slavery had been abolished was a small corner of Europe.

From what social utopia does Losurdo hurl his thunderbolts at bourgeois democracy? What social order does he advocate?

In fact, Losurdo does not have to search Locke or Smith to discover if anything can be said in praise of bourgeois democracy; he only needs to look at the history of Russia after 1917. As far as written advocacy is concerned, the last word was Fukuyama—even if he disavowed himself in order to sell another book. Fukuyama took bourgeois democracy at its word, not at its deed; that difference, of course, is the crux of the matter here. Fukuyama concluded that market democracy is the final stage in human social evolution—that is, the social order whose justice is unsurpassable.

Does Losurdo really object to Fukuyama’s conclusion? And, if so, on what basis? Losurdo shills for social democracy in ISR and criticizes neoliberalism by asserting (without a citation) that Hayek opposed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Losurdo follows this with a blast at our latter-day humanitarian wars. What then does Losurdo’s support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mean? How can Losurdo simply cry “internal affair” when a government is massacring its people? By what authority does Losurdo cry “sovereignty” at all? Is he in favor of the existence of nations?

All the same, in the Platypus Review, he comes out foursquare for “competition” in a manner that is not especially consistent. The interviewers seem to endorse a Losurdian synthesis of Fabianism, “competition,” and absolute monarchy. Losurdo decries the dismantling of Fabianism in Europe in ISR, which when taken together with his comments in the Platypus Review, amounts to saying that Keynesianism would be social paradise if only the dissenters would leave it alone—a Keynesianism that, by some miracle, would exist without nationalism. Do the interviewers consider Keynesianism the last stop on the Left’s rail-line?

Losurdo is a Right Fabian who ought to be able to find his home in the Labour Party. Losurdo doesn’t see bourgeois ideology for what it is. Seemingly, he has never encountered its core: neoclassical economics—the sort of economics for which Nobel Prizes are awarded. Formal political equality is the most egalitarian conclusion in core bourgeois ideology. While there is nothing “mere” about it, formal political equality is nevertheless compatible with the starvation of the poor, and bourgeois ideology does not apologize for that. Social democracy may soften the shock—but it is a fragile remedy. Losurdo says in ISR that, by now, the bourgeois republic has granted three enfranchisements that it denied at the outset. (Blacks are not slaves, and can vote, women can vote, etc.) But, Losurdo says, these enfranchisements are “merely formal.”

The Left has devolved to selective outpourings of resentment whose payoff, if any, is to force philanthropy on the rich. (It assumes that the rich will always be with us, and in fact the Left’s achievements would not have it otherwise.) As to Losurdo, he discovers that the heroes of 1776 were slaveowners. That is true—and profound. How can it be, then, that the verbal formulations of the evil republicans of the eighteenth century were the foundation of the “unsurpassably” just social order?

Consider Losurdo’s analysis of the new thought of the eighteenth century. Every radical historian (as they are called) in the U.S. has stood in front of the class and wrung his hands over the fact that “all men are created equal” was written by slaveowners. In fact, the slavery question in America is as much a central concern of a proponent of eighteenth-century values, such as Henry Jaffa, as it is for Losurdo. Was it historically unique that the Framers who did bad wrote good? Hinduism propounded one of the most idealistic visions of all time, thousands of years ago. At the same time, that vision was bound up with a vicious social hierarchy. Engels was a capitalist, and Marx, having gambled away his own inheritance, was forced to depend on Engels’ capitalist munificence for his survival.

What Losurdo’s citations show, once they are properly sifted and collated, is that the classic liberals presupposed enfranchised citizens who were drawn exclusively from the Third Estate, i.e. the gentry. Not only did the normative actors include slaveowners, but the slaveowners themselves led the individualist and libertarian movement. In particular, Locke did not just pronounce on slavery as a social philosopher; in his capacity as a British official, he was complicit in the West Indian slave trade and the slave constitutions of the American colonies. Thus, when the liberals asserted the autonomy of the individual against tyranny, and when they asserted the will of the majority, these in fact referred strictly to the gentry as political actors—i.e., to 20 percent of the population. The other 80 percent was excluded and ripe for the plucking.

If you take your stand in 1700, say, and look forward, slavery and colonialism are not old evils in the process of being phased out. They are expanding enterprises. Slavery, colonialism, the dispossession of Native Americans, and (most important, numerically) the non-enfranchisement of women, did not persist because some copyist made a mistake in the Declaration of Independence. These were deliberate omissions, and the locutions that seemed to preclude them are extraordinary illustrations that meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

Losurdo tells us in Liberalism that Bentham said that the only man in France who actually believed the Declaration of the Rights of Man was Babeuf. If Bentham said that, it is extraordinarily piercing. Babeuf was the founder of modern Communism. The only people who took “all men” as all humans were the Communists.

The classic liberal position abounds in subtleties that are curve balls for the interpreter:

(i) Classic liberals wrote ringing denunciations of slavery on the grounds that a man cannot sell his autonomy, or voluntarily surrender his autonomy.[2] For all that, when slavery was prohibited in Texas by the Mexican government, the Anglo slaveowners held on to slavery precisely by the ruse of the lifetime indentured servant. Precisely what Locke said was impossible was in fact a key institution to the Texas economy until such time as Texas became part of the U.S. and chattel slavery could be reinstated.

(ii) The rhetoric in the liberal classics did not supply any bold authorization of slavery. Locke did supply a bold authorization for private property: he says twice that the sole purpose for which civil society exists is to protect private property.[3] He also says, as Losurdo tells us elsewhere, that without private property justice cannot exist.

In contrast, the liberal classics slip slavery under the door. But their reticence does not in the least mean that slavery was on the way out. Either they wanted a world that was not yet possible—a circumstance dreamers typically find themselves in—or else they were committed to an institution they didn’t much want to talk about (as in the case of Hinduism on caste).

Once we are clear on (i)-(ii), we can see that the Dred Scott decision was not a mistake; it confirmed what had been custom since 1776 or 1789. The Dred Scott decision confirmed what the U.S. gentry had been doing and what was the basis of a lucrative economy and foreign trade in the U.S. In the 1850s, the Washington government was pro-slavery on balance. It was the endorsement of slavery by the Supreme Court decision that crystallized a decisive counter-tendency from Northern industry (as we have learned to call it). If the Dred Scott decision is read as an explication of U.S. institutions—rather than as a creed—it says in a few lines what Losurdo takes a book, an article, and an interview to say.


 Fletcher Cransom, Lincoln at Gettysburg, oil on canvas, 1938 (Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles).

As we all know, Lincoln decried the Dred Scott decision and launched his political career by way of decrying it. We need to know something that has generally been forgotten: the Republican Party was founded at that juncture as America’s abolitionist party. Lincoln was abolitionism’s leading political figure. Of course he decried the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln may have spoken abstractly of a withering away of slavery in his Senate campaign speech, but he never once objected to slavery in the slave states within the Union. That there were slave states in the Union is well documented in history, but it is not taught because ideology needs perfect saints and perfect villains.

The scope of the Emancipation Proclamation is deeply misrepresented by history as typically taught. Lincoln made it okay to say that a Supreme Court decision is plain damn wrong. Legally, the way to override the Supreme Court is to amend the Constitution. But President Jackson had already repudiated the Supreme Court in 1832 in the matter of the Cherokees: Jackson overrode the decision with the force of the army. In fact, Jackson’s override was an Executive coup d’état. So, when Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that the U.S. had been in continuous existence since 1776, he was lying: The regime in which Lincoln won a place had been in existence only since 1832. The first U.S. republic had already been soundlessly overthrown by President Jackson.

Losurdo follows in the tradition of Marx and many other right-thinking academics in exalting Lincoln as an icon. While Losurdo gleefully besmirches Locke, Jefferson, Franklin, Tocqueville, et al.—making an exception only for Smith—Lincoln is the shining savior. But what about that beacon of beacons, the Gettysburg Address? Read from a critical standpoint, it is filled with lies. It is much worse than the Declaration of Independence, as there had been almost a century of history illuminating the gap between libertarian phrases and institutional practice. And there are several years of history to make it clear that Lincoln’s action against slavery was directed against states in rebellion, against sectional leaders—period. When Marx enthused over Lincoln, Marx totally forgot (or did he?) that he was supposed to be against capitalism.

As I intimated, Losurdo cannot separate his derogation of republicanism from the rehabilitation of monarchy. At any rate, the thesis that monarchy was more concerned about slavery than republics is already boldly stated in Adam Smith.[4] To paraphrase Smith, monarchy is kinder to slaves than a republic, because a republic unleashes the will of the enfranchised. That means the will of the massed gentry, i.e., slaveowners.

But Losurdo embellishes Smith: He has Smith calling for a violent suppression of slavery. While Smith makes his disapproval of slavery very clear, there are no calls for abolition anywhere in Smith. In general, Smith is far more matter-of-fact, far more descriptive, than Losurdo. Smith is famous for his pronouncement that wage labor is better than slavery,[5] but this pronouncement is pragmatic: Wage labor is cheaper than slavery because the workman opts to be frugal.

Losurdo has found instances in which classic liberals let slip what they were up to. Constant does say that political actors should be limited to men of property. Mandeville does say, in Fable of the Bees, Volume 1, that the poor should be denied education, to prevent them from getting above themselves. Smith does depreciate the intelligence of workmen.[6] And Locke does depreciate farm labor. But neither of the latter two examples is so incriminating in context. Smith does not claim that the workman’s stupidity is congenital, and he follows his remarks with a call for education of the poor. Locke is as irreverent toward country gentlemen as he is toward farm labor—so much so that the editor of Locke’s collected works feels the need to apologize in a footnote. Tocqueville does call Jefferson a perfect democrat in chapter 13 of the first volume of Democracy in America. The implication of these examples is that many early liberals were willing to write off eighty per cent of the population—and that reveals much about how they thought. But the quote from Tocqueville is a throwaway line. Tocqueville’s phrase does not rise to the level of Sieyès’ doctrine of the excluded classes, as represented by Losurdo. Moreover, according to Losurdo, there is a condemnation of the slave rebellion in Haiti in volume four of Tocqueville’s Oeuvres Complètes. I could find no such passage there—nor in the editor’s footnote on Saint-Domingue.

Losurdo has a citation to a Tocqueville letter On Penology in which Tocqueville says that the worst criminals should be killed en masse. Losurdo places this side-by-side with a letter in which Benjamin Franklin tells a physician that most of the people he is treating are not worth saving. Losurdo takes Franklin’s wisecrack totally out of context. Putting it beside the Tocqueville remark about the worst criminals, Losurdo informs us that the liberals wanted a genocide of workmen. Losurdo is misusing his sources but, more to the point, the last thing the liberals wanted was a genocide of workmen. The great problem for them was the assembly of a labor force, i.e., finding people who were poor enough to submit to the wage bargain. In this misuse of his sources, Losurdo shows part of his agenda here. He needs for the Tocquevilles and Franklins not only to reflect their station, but also to be monsters.

It may not be considered a scholar’s responsibility to make his references accessible. In one case, the interviewers in the Platypus Review caught Losurdo, about whether La Mettrie contemptuously remarked that workmen are mere machines. La Mettrie was an early materialist, and, for better or worse, he equated humans with machines. But this was not, in La Mettrie’s own view, derogatory. The interviewers caught that—to their credit. But when Losurdo gave them a runaround, in response, they let it slide.

Losurdo offers, as a full-blown classic liberal brief for slavery, Benjamin Constant’s address, “The Liberty of the Ancients as Compared to that of the Moderns.”[7] But this address turns out to be a set piece, a boilerplate tribute to classical civilization. When Constant comes to talk of his own time, his conclusion is that we should monitor our political representatives more carefully. In his own way, Marx said both of these things, as well. He famously remarked on the charm of classical art and, writing on the Paris Commune, he said that Communists should monitor their representatives carefully. Contrary to Losurdo’s expectations, Constant gives no clear-cut advocacy of plantations in the colonies.


 Hercule de Roche, Portrait of Benjamin Constant , oil on canvas, 1830? (Musée Carnavale, Paris).

Losurdo has also lost sight of the historical context of Bentham’s Pauper Management Improved. Non-state poor relief was a reality in England, which long had the Poor Laws, toward which all of England’s policy experts were supposed to have a position. Bentham’s scheme was horrible, but was what he wanted for British subjects worse than plantation slavery? All the same, the social arrangements of two or three hundred years ago were pervasively unconscionable by today’s standards. As for Bentham’s proposal, official England ignored it. The only point served by recalling it is to tarnish Bentham’s intentions.

Ultimately, Losurdo has not been forthcoming about what he advocates. Despite unburying evidence for a potentially incisive reexamination of classical liberalism, Losurdo fails to marshal this evidence efficaciously, thus drawing politically questionable conclusions. As far as I can tell, Losurdo has not washed his hands of capitalism. He believes that a retouched version of capitalism is viable—whereas the question, as he writes, is what viability means. Losurdo seems to overlook what neoclassical economics says when it does not have to apologize to anybody. What capitalism holds in store for wealthless individuals who cannot find work is worse than Bentham’s poor relief. The latter-day Left which sides with medieval regression against the center also assents to capitalism by default. |P

[1]. See Losurdo, “The Tangled Paradox of Liberalism,” International Socialist Review (July–August 2012).

[2]. Locke, Second Treatise, §23; and Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 451.

[3]. Locke, Second Treatise, §§85.[[3]]

[4]. Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, 451–52.

[5]. Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 8.

[6]. Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 1, Article II.

[7]. Biancamaria Fontana, ed., The Political Writings of Benjamin Constant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 309.