The L-Word

Liberals have been failing to live up to their ideals for centuries, but we mustn’t give up on liberalism.

George Washington

Liberal has been a dirty word in US politics for some time. President Barack Obama can supply convincing answers to the two preposterous charges about his identity that he has faced recently. One, that he is not really an American, was dismissed by producing his birth certificate. The other, that he is a socialist, is more difficult. It could be exploded by declaring that he is self-evidently liberal in his political convictions. But we can be fairly confident that he will not be using the L-word, even though it claims a political pedigree stretching back to the founding fathers.

George Washington himself, that unillusioned soldier and great patriot, extolled “the benefits of a wise and liberal Government” and advocated “a liberal system of policy”. There was not only political principle but political expediency in proclaiming oneself motivated by liberal ideas in that era. The fact that the American Revolution was made in terms of this political prospectus helps explain its ultimate success. There were simply too many Britons who felt that the colonists actually had the better of the argument—they were the better liberals. For British Whigs, too, looked back reverently on canons of government that extolled liberty in thought, speech, religion, government and trade alike. It was part of the heritage of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Indeed, for some more incendiary spirits on both sides of the Atlantic, the Good Old Cause of republican virtue was at stake.

Little wonder, then, that the history of liberalism has often taken this Anglo-American tradition as its great exemplar. Historically, its primacy has attracted reverent homage from liberals in lands less blessed with the virtues so effortlessly displayed by the English-speaking peoples, or the Anglosphere as some would say today. Thus Camillo Cavour, in his efforts to bring unity to 19th-century Italy, looked to Britain for his model, just as British Liberals, coming together as a political party in the 1860s, were united in looking to the Italian risorgimento as an inspiring realisation of their own principles. William Ewart Gladstone made a political career of remarkable length and potency largely on the basis of championing subject peoples rightly struggling to be free.

Liberal ideas not only united Liberals within Britain. They united them with their fellow members of the English-speaking peoples who had recently vindicated the universal principles of political emancipation in the American civil war. It was a cause that Gladstone himself had been slow to take up, much to his own subsequent chagrin and to the frustration of his admirers. He had been slower than Abraham Lincoln to see that the principle of liberty had no inner check and that it was threatened by its own incoherence if any principle of exclusion from its blessings was applied.

The Republicans were at this time the liberal party of the US; the Democrats, hobbled by their southern constituency, were the party with most to fear from liberalism. It was to take the best part of a century to resolve this ideological confusion. Though Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal may stand out in retrospect as the great liberal moment in American history, the coalition that he put together included a phalanx of Democrats from the then solid south, and such support exacted its price.

Coalition is, of course, a current problem for Liberals. It could be said that every successful political party is itself a coalition, the broader-based the better. This was what gave the Liberal party such traction in British politics in the Gladstonian era; and what sustained the New Liberals of the succeeding generation, with comparable electoral triumphs in the era of Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George, was again the party’s ability to adapt itself to new social forces. The tacit electoral alliance with the early Labour party was not actually called a coalition, though in some ways it served as such. The point was that, in all but a few constituencies, Liberals and Labour did not oppose each other; and in the House of Commons a Liberal government was sustained by what contemporaries called a Progressive Alliance, including both Liberals and Labour. This is an instructive formula: almost the opposite of the current arrangements, which simultaneously implicate Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in a basically Tory government while permitting their partners in Westminster to undermine them in the country. The current failure of this strategy could not have been clearer when, in a referendum held less than a week before the two parties marked a year in coalition on May 11, British voters overwhelmingly rejected the more proportional voting system that Lib-Dems had hoped would be one of their chief rewards.

The contradictions of coalition-building have nowhere been better illustrated than in Canada. Taking their cue from the Gladstonian example, Canadian Liberals emerged as the natural party of government in the 20th century. A broad-based party, it included a business wing that was happily entrenched in both Montreal and Toronto; it included liberals who embraced the politics of the welfare state and of the Keynesian consensus; it meanwhile effected an accommodation with the forces of francophone identity that gave the party a firm base in Quebec. To the frustration alike of Conservatives, Quebec separatists and the social democrats of the New Democratic Party, the Liberals were sitting pretty.

This was the party that drew Michael Ignatieff back to Canada; a man of enormous intellect, quick wit and academic distinction, he was elected as its leader in 2009. Alas, a 30-year absence brought with it several handicaps, one of which was his failure to discern that the Liberals he remembered with such affection no longer existed, as was shown in their decimation in the Canadian general election last week. The card that the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, played with single-mindedness and undoubted effect was to mock his rivals’ claim to have a broad base and in particular to demonise them as a party that could not govern without seeking coalition partners outside their own ranks.

This is not a good time, then, to celebrate the English-speaking liberal tradition; certainly not to celebrate it with any degree of complacency. Perhaps it is a good time, however, to publish a book that turns a sceptical eye upon the tradition’s ideological heritage. Domenico Losurdo, a professor of philosophy at Urbino, must certainly be hoping so. His opportune volume, Liberalism: A Counter-History, first published in Italian five years ago, displays a consistent aversion to what he calls the hagiography of this tradition.

It is a brilliant exercise in unmasking liberal pretensions, surveying over three centuries with magisterial command of the sources. Though the learning is worn lightly, few would challenge Losurdo’s mastery of the classic texts, whether from Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, John C Calhoun, Benjamin Franklin, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith or, yes, George Washington too. Only two non-anglophones get more than a walk-on part in this drama. The first is Charles-Louis Montesquieu, and even he comes on stage duly lauding 18th-century England as “the freest country in the world, not discounting any republic”. We also get, laced with a refreshing touch of anglophobia, Alexis de Tocqueville, if only to make much the same claims for 19th-century America.

What has Losurdo got against liberalism? He resolutely exposes the internal contradictions of a doctrine that ostensibly upheld freedom, autonomy and self-government, yet failed in practice to universalise its own ethic. The presence of Calhoun in his canon alerts us early on to one important dimension. For Calhoun, steeped in the political culture of the antebellum American south, simultaneously coupled his liberal defence of individual and states rights with an explicit defence of slavery, which excluded blacks from the exercise of these great principles. Was this just the same old one-eyed hypocrisy that we expect of politicians?

There is, in fact, more to the book than this. It shows how slavery was legitimised within the liberal canon all the way back to Locke. And it gets worse. Once slavery could no longer be defended, the same liberals who now made a big deal out of its abolition promptly turned to excluding and repressing former slaves in slightly more subtle ways, such as indentured labour. And not just across the colour line, but also countenancing the oppression of workers closer to home when they, too, got uppity. It was the liberal economists, from Smith onwards, so Losurdo assures us, who shackled the working class by demonising early trade unions and who then turned their hard faces on some of the consequences of their inviolable free market, whether in the form of pauperism in Britain or famine across the Irish sea.

Did these great liberal thinkers really have no answers to the social problems of their day? Well, Locke thought compulsory churchgoing for the poor might be one remedy. So the best defence of the liberals against the charge of racism might be their willingness to inflict on their own kith and kin most of the indignities normally visited on slaves. But “master-race democracy”, excluding blacks or Arabs alike, remains a significant indictment. Chapter by chapter, one liberal after another is knocked off his plinth. “Compared with the liberal tradition,” Losurdo writes, “Nietzsche proved more lucid and consistent.”

And yet, it would be misleading simply to convey this negative impression. Losurdo keeps up his tease for 340 pages and it is only then that he shows his own hand, when he writes of “the horror of the 20th century” bursting upon the world, and discloses that “being dissatisfied with the edifying picture of the habitual hagiography” is not enough as an agenda. For his conclusion is not that we need less liberalism but that we need more. Specifically, we need to be more scrupulous in overcoming the various “exclusion clauses” that have disfigured the liberal tradition but are not intrinsic to its central values. Thus liberty, justice, emancipation and democracy must be made genuinely available to all, through conscious efforts that many liberals have evaded. As Losurdo puts it: “Liberalism’s merits are too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with other, completely imaginary ones.”

Conservatives will enjoy reading this book as a demolition job. They will turn to it in hopes of finding an intellectual arsenal with which to bombard their opponents. They will take advantage of a moment when the historic political affiliation of many liberals in the Anglosphere has become a love that dare not speak its name. But liberals, too, should read this book as part of the task of reconstruction. This task, of course, cannot be accomplished simply in intellectual terms but the message that liberalism needs to be inclusive in its claims and its constituency alike is one with a current significance that is truly international.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.