A new study of liberalism as an ideology reveals the lie behind its claim to be the bearer of universal freedoms. Losurdo’s argument is especially relevant in view of the recent wave of rebellion against authoritarian regimes, argues Tom Whittaker.

Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso 2011), 384pp.

Domenico Losurdo ends his Liberalism: A Counter-History suggesting that only through bidding farewell to the habitual hagiography of the subject can there be serious consideration of the contribution to intellectual and political thought made by liberalism. Hagiography Losurdo’s book certainly is not. He opens with the question ‘what is liberalism?’, asking whether we should consider a figure such as John C. Calhoun, champion of the slave-holding south of the USA, as a liberal. Most people would certainly consider slavery to be the absolute antithesis of liberty and the rights of man. However, for a prominent nineteenth-century liberal, such as Lord Acton, there was no doubt that Calhoun was a liberal. Indeed, he was a ‘champion of the cause of the struggle against absolutism’ and of the ‘defence of minority rights against the abuse of an overbearing majority’ (p.2).

Losurdo presses this point further, suggesting that if we reject the idea that Calhoun was a liberal, on account of his support for the institution of slavery, then ‘why should we continue to dignify John Locke with the title of father of Liberalism’? Locke, whilst of course a famous opponent of the ‘political slavery’ practised by absolute monarchy, considered slavery in the colonies to be quite normal. Therefore from the outset Losurdo illustrates how liberalism has always been an ideology full of contradictions, moreover one characterised by an unfolding dialectic of freedom and un-freedom. Liberty for ‘the community of the free’ has coexisted with oppression and exploitation for the many excluded from this community.

A tangle of emancipation and dis-emanciaption

That liberalism has acted as an ideology of emancipation in the struggle against numerous tyrannies is without doubt. The history of liberalism is to a large extent the history of the great modern bourgeois revolutions, England 1640-1688, America 1776-1783, and France 1789-1794. Yet a darker side to liberalism also exists, its ‘counter-history’, one too frequently neglected by ideologues for the system, past and present, but one with a deep immersion in colonialism, slavery and brutal class oppression.

Losurdo suggests that the development of liberalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is best explained by focusing on its two ‘macroscopic exclusion clauses’, which kept people outside of the ‘community of the free’. These exclusion clauses were applied to slaves, populations of colonial origin, and also ‘servants’ (workers both urban and rural in the metropolis, p.181). A third exclusion clause directed towards women is acknowledged but deemed less central, if only because some upper class women, (such as female slave owners), formed, albeit it in a subordinate role, part of the community of the free.

Un-freedom in the colonies

With regards to the first of these exclusion clauses, slavery, Losurdo focuses upon the slogan of the rebel American colonists during the war of independence, ‘We won’t be their Negroes’ (p.301), suggesting that this highlights the ‘tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation’ taking place. The Colonists’ rebellion both demanded equality in relation to Great Britain whilst reasserting inequality in relation to Blacks and Native Americans. As Losurdo remarks; ‘liberalism and racial chattel slavery emerged together in a twin birth’ (p.302).

One consequence of this was that the American Revolution would have to take place in two acts, not being completed until after the defeat of the South in the civil war of the 1860s. Furthermore, and as wisely predicted by Adam Smith, the abolition of slavery in America would not take place under ideal liberal conditions of representative self-government, but rather in the form of the union army and military dictatorship.

It was not only the American Revolution that fell short of its emancipatory potential. Losurdo describes how the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, (mockingly referred to by Marx as ‘a parliamentary coup d’état’), whilst finally ending the era of monarchical absolutism, also enabled the English landed aristocracy to consolidate its colonial domination over the Irish and gave considerable impetus to slavery in the colonies. At home, it led to the enclosure of common land and the exclusion of the peasantry from their main means of subsistence. Such contradictions in these revolutionary processes provide much of the context for the ambiguities and inconsistencies to be found within the liberal tradition.

Un-freedom in the metropolis

The second of Losurdo’s ‘macroscopic exclusion clauses’ focuses on what he terms white servants in the metropolis. Often their conditions of existence were not remarkably better than the black slaves in the colonies. Adam Smith spoke of ‘vestiges of slavery’ within Great Britain, particularly with reference to certain salt works and coalmines in Scotland. Here the workers were often kept in a condition similar to serfdom in Eastern Europe. They and their families were considered to be a part of the mine or salt work. Were it to be sold, they would also pass into the service of a new master. Shockingly, many workers were even obliged to wear a collar on which the name of their master was inscribed. De Tocqueville, upon visiting England in 1842 remarked that ‘equality is everywhere extending its dominion, except in industry which is daily organised in increasingly aristocratic form’ (p.189).

That such oppression existed amongst white servants in Great Britain was a point that was not lost on the defenders of slavery in the USA. As civil war neared, Calhoun, somewhat opportunistically, went so far as to positively contrast the condition of American slaves with that of inmates of workhouses or poorhouses existing in England at that time. Indeed, Losurdo notes, with some irony, that the Poor Law that massively expanded the workhouse system, was passed in the same year (1834) that slavery was finally abolished in Britain’s colonies. Engels, in condemning the workhouse, described it as a ‘total institution’. However, for a key liberal thinker like Jeremy Bentham, this was precisely the point. His infamous Panopticon, a building that could achieve surveillance with no hope of escape, could happily function as a prison, a workhouse or a factory, suggesting that in nineteenth-century liberal Britain there was little difference perceived between each.

Ultimately the boundaries between the community of the free and those excluded from it, ran as much along class as along racial or national lines. Yet, by the mid-nineteenth century, there was still little sign of a serious liberal challenge to the exclusions. Why was this the case? Losurdo reveals a large part of the answer when he writes:

‘At its inception, liberalism expressed the self-consciousness of a class of owners of slaves or servants that was being formed as the capitalist system began to emerge and establish itself, thanks in part to those ruthless practices of expropriation and oppression implemented in the metropolis, and especially the colonies, which Marx described as “original capitalist accumulation”’ (p.309).

Liberalism is the ideology of the capitalist class. Therefore its contradictions arise from the fact it was required to legitimate both the revolutions that put this class into power, and the systems of domination that then arose out of the functioning of capitalism.

Beyond liberalism

If the exclusion clauses cited by Losurdo were eventually successfully challenged, that challenge came largely from outside of mainstream liberalism. Losurdo suggests that the crisis of the American Revolution, in particular its failure to deal with the institution of slavery, prepared the ground for the greater radicalism of the French Revolution and the emergence of a distinctly ‘radical’, as opposed to liberal tradition. This radical tradition was associated with figures such as Condorcet and Diderot, and their distinctiveness was owing at least partly to the fact that they were prepared to support ‘revolution from below’ as a means of abolishing slavery. Diderot, somewhat prophetically, envisaged the rise of a Black Spartacus who might lead a slave revolt, which is of course what happened in the form of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins in San Domingo (Haiti).

Meanwhile in the metropolis the struggles of the excluded grew throughout the nineteenth century and began successfully to force concessions from the ruling elite. In 1848 de Tocqueville had voiced concern that the working-class revolution would no longer be solely political, but also social in content. He was probably not unrepresentative of liberal thinking of the time in believing that economic laws were, or at least should be, of divine origin. Consequently they should be safely beyond the reach of social change. However, regardless of what the likes of de Tocqueville thought, demands were raised by the working class, not only for the right to vote, but increasingly also for the right to healthcare, education and leisure time. By the latter half of the nineteenth century the context in which these demands were raised was far removed from the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, thus allowing liberalism greater room for manoeuvre.

Whilst many liberals still opposed concessions to the working classes, others, such as T. H. Green in Britain, began to see the need for greater state intervention to bring about some amelioration of the stark inequality and injustices that scarred society. This ‘new liberalism’ would eventually culminate in the Beveridge report and the establishment of the welfare state, but only after further and more intense social struggles on behalf of the excluded.


Losurdo urges ‘that we bid farewell to the myth of a gradual, peaceful transition from liberalism to democracy’ (p.341), neatly making the point that the two are by no means identical. Indeed, for most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was distinctly hostile to the idea of mass democracy based upon a universal franchise. Liberals, such as Robert Lowe, feared that the working classes would use the vote to press their own sectional interests as opposed to the general interests of society. Politics, henceforth, would be determined by the sheer numerical strength of the lower orders, rather than the wealth and intellect of the upper classes.

Liberalism was to undergo something of a transformation in terms of its attitude to democracy during the twentieth century. To a large extent, this was in order to meet the challenge posed by socialism and, in particular, by the Russian Revolution of 1917. As Lenin suggested, some sort of democratic republic was now seen as the best political shell for capitalism. However, the facts that many liberals from Locke onwards were simply opposed to democracy, that unprecedented violence was often required to bring about democratic change (the US Civil war), and that emancipation was very often external to the liberal world (San Domingo), all serve to underline Losurdo’s point about the myth of a peaceful transition.

Ultimately, Losurdo deems the most important reason for rejecting this myth to be the tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation, meaning that the extension of the suffrage in Europe, was accompanied with simultaneous colonial expansion and the subjugation of peoples and races deemed inferior. Above all, liberalism sacrificed democracy on the altar of colonialism, slavery and empire.

In 2011, as great political struggles for democracy shake the Middle East and beyond, debates will emerge as to which ideological visions can best harness people’s desires for emancipation. Liberalism, despite its recent regression into neo-liberalism and consequent association with powerful economic elites, will no doubt be touted as the default ideological setting for these movements to adopt. Those who seek a deeper emancipation and more radical solutions will however need to move beyond the contradictions of liberalism. In such an ideological context, Losurdo’s critical history is a timely and invaluable contribution.