[OPE] Liberalism

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Mon Aug 25 2008 - 14:57:27 EDT


I am not so sure that what you say makes a lot of sense as stated, since, as I've pointed out before, wars, crises, revolutions and imperialism are pretty much ongoing phenomena in the whole history of capitalism and are thus associated with the whole history of liberalism. 

Albert Bergesen and Ronald Schoenberg provide some data on colonialism in  "Long Waves of Colonial Expansion and Contraction, 1415-1969" (in: Albert Bergesen (ed.), Studies of the Modern World-System (New York: Academic Press, 1980)). 

Shamelessly purloining Marcel's short summary of this in his forthcoming new book: 

"The first wave began in 1415 (with the Portuguese colony in Ceuta, North Africa) and reached its peak in 1770 (147 distinct colonies) and its low point in 1825 (81 colonies). The second wave began in 1826, reached its peak in 1921 (168 colonies) and then declined to 58 colonies in 1969. Bergesen and Schoenberg note a clear correspondence between stability or instability in the core of the world system, and the expansion or contraction of colonies. In the periods 1500-1815, 1870-1945 and from 1973 to the present, the core was "multicentric" and unstable: no clear hegemonic power existed, and it led to protectionism and expanding colonialism. Colonialism is in this sense "an extra-economic mechanism for resetting the basic core-periphery division of labor in times of disorder and stress." By contrast, when there has been a hegemonic power in the core ("unicentricity"), then "the more explicit political regulation of core-periphery relations collapses, as seen in the waves of decolonization." They argue this happened during the Pax Britannica (1815-70) and again in the Pax Americana (1945-73)." (cited in Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World, Brill Publishers 2008, p. 309).

Prof. Donald Winch retrospects in his book "Classical political economy and colonies" (Harvard, 1965, p. 167-168) that "Far from being staunch opponents of the imperial idea, the classical school [of political economy] provided a means for its furtherance. (...) There is however a very important dividing line between classical liberal imperialism and later manifestations of the imperial creed. Liberal imperialism might have arrogant overtones, such as can be seen in James Mill; but it was not based on racial arrogance. (...) Classical writers were always careful to state that differences between peoples were not due to inherent racial or religious characteristics. In this repect, too, they carried the liberal views of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth. Human nature was assumed to be much the same wherever it was to be found; a society that was relatively backward could always be raised in the scale of civilisation by better government and education". 

The leftist perception is that liberals are full of the "milk of human kindness" and generous in their liberality when "the going is good", but turn into total despots when and where their position is threatened, suggesting that they were hypocrites all along. 

The problems with this line of argument are several: 

(1) the same thing can be said of supporters of many other political ideologies, including socialists and communists, 
(2) the growth of the salariat, up to 80-85% of the working population has brought with it that a substantial fraction of the total of wage and salary earners has fairly stable liberal beliefs which do not change a great deal across time. 
(3) The precise boundaries between Right and Left are nowadays increasingly difficult to draw, and radicals seeking political integrity and believing that politics is more than "the art of the possible" nowadays often find themselves opposed to both.

It would appear that not even a revolution can wipe the broad political spectrum out (cf. China), and that liberalism is rooted in certain material conditions of life and a certain historical/cultural experience. The ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, socialism, and social democracy, with various permutations, appear from a historian's point of view to be longlasting phenomena, which are not annulled even by revolutions or fascist regimes, and which persist in spite of them. 

Richard Seymour's eloquent Marxist critique "The liberal defence of murder" in good part takes inspiration from Lenin's hostility to liberalism (see also his blog http://leninology.blogspot.com/). Thus, for example Lenin wrote in a 1912 polemic against Trotsky and others:
"The liberals are enemies of the revolution. Even now they are outspoken in their opposition to it-the Black-Hundred Third Duma has not taught them to throw off their fear of the revolution. Being afraid of the revolution, the liberals comfort themselves with the hope of constitutional reforms and advocate for the workers one of those reforms, freedom of association. But the workers do not believe the fable about a "constitution" under the conditions of the Third Duma, general lack of rights, and unbridled tyranny. The workers demand freedom of association in earnest and therefore they are fighting for freedom for the whole people, for the overthrow of the monarchy, for a republic." http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1912/jul/30c.htm

But in November 1917, of course, the Russian Constituent Assembly was summarily abolished, something criticized by Western Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg (e.g. "The Russian Revolution: a Critical Evaluation", 1922) and by Kautsky in numerous writings, and subsequently rival political parties were outlawed in the Russian Federation. In the heat of civil war, Lenin in fact at times recommended killing a sample of people simply to break all resistance to bolshevik power (the "red terror" counterposed the "white terror"). The Czar and his family were quietly executed, without public trial, to remove any possibility of their return, and break all superstitious belief in the power of "Daddy Czar". 

Marxists take the behaviour of liberals in the revolution as proof of their critique, but liberals likewise take the behaviour of communists as proof that liberals were right to take the positions they did. This has always suggested to me that neither perspective is in fact an adequate guide to the workings of historical development, and that more is involved than either perspective is prepared to admit, although both perspectives contain a degree of historical truth. Liberals played a very important role in the American revolution against British colonial rule (think not just of e.g. Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, but also of Montesquieu and Locke), suggesting that in different contexts liberals can, like Marxists, play quite a different role, which cannot be simply reduced to one common denominator.

Consequently, I regard the liberal critique of the Left just as important to understand as the Leftist critique of liberalism, if indeed we are serious about projects for human emancipation from the conditions which oppress them. A dialogue between them is therefore necessary, but you cannot have that dialogue (and the heterodoxy it allows), if different viewpoints are simply dismissed as wrong on doctrinal grounds, or worse, their supporters are simply killed off. This need not imply that we dissolve coherent political viewpoints in a formless mish-mash of beliefs, or that such a dialogue necessarily implies a liberal position, but just that a better viewpoint may come out of that experience.

Karl Marx himself originated as a bourgeois liberal in a non-liberal world who, through critical thought, personal inclination and experience of persecution and brutal poverty, reached communist conclusions. How many conservatives could reach such conclusions, I wonder? Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that "Marxism represents a further vital, and creative stage in the maturing of man's universal vision. Marxism is simultaneously a victory of the external, active man over the inner, passive man, and a victory of reason over belief...' (Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era). 

Why should a Marxist not be able to acknowledge frankly that there is something "vital" in liberalism as well, that is worth saving?


"The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame" - Oscar Wilde, A Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

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