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How Liberals Rewrite Their Own History

Ian Dunt's new book 'How to Be a Liberal' is part of a broader intellectual exercise to drape liberal history in comforting myths – ones which conceal its role in abetting imperialism, slavery and fascism.

‘It starts with the individual’, concludes Ian Dunt in How to Be a Liberal. At almost 450 pages, the journalist and former Remainiac‘s part manifesto, part history is as ambitious as it is wide-ranging. Its intention is to offer a rallying cry for those radicalised by Brexit and Trumpism but who fall short of considering themselves as radical. At times, it’s as if the author instinctively knows his readership already agrees with him — they just need to be shown why.

Dunt’s opening chapters offer a detailed history of liberalism, as he leads his reader on a journey that begins in the seventeenth century with Descartes and passes through the Levellers, the Putney Debates, and John Locke. He goes on to attempt to makes sense of three events spanning 100 years which, he contends, forged liberalism as we know it: Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution. Later thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and George Orwell are considered. But while Arthur Schlesinger Jr is never mentioned, his principal contribution—of the need for a ‘vital centre’ in democratic politics—courses throughout.

History by Omission

For Dunt, liberalism emerges as a political force within the more radical elements of the English Civil War. While ultimately defeated — the Cromwellian protectorate being both undemocratic and short-lived — Dunt particularly views the Levellers as prefiguring a series of revolutions which would ‘conquer the world’. Here a political movement which wished to ‘turn the world upside down’ is established as ostensibly liberal, as is the poet and pamphleteer John Milton, and presumably the Diggers, the radical agrarian communist group whose leader, Gerard Winstanley, said God had created the Earth  ‘to be a common treasury’.

Entirely absent, however, is any consideration of how it was the republican tradition that bequeathed the most powerful ideas of liberty during this period, with Dunt’s retrospective liberalism an incomprehensible term in seventeenth-century England. In his seminal Liberty Before Liberalism, historian Quentin Skinner instead argues it was the ‘neo-Roman’ theory of liberty — in opposition to thinkers such as Hobbes and defenders of absolutism — which inspired not only Milton but James Harrington, Henry Neville, and Algernon Sidney.

Crucial here was not Descartes and the cogito ergo sum — which Dunt takes as his starting point, centring the individual — but republican ideas of antiquity which had been revived by Renaissance humanism. In fact, in these republican developments, liberty did not start with the calculating individual, but with Cicero’s formulation from the first century AD, ‘res publica res populi‘. The animating belief was that the public interest was the people’s interest, and that a state’s government belonged to its citizens. It was these sentiments, metabolised in Europe for more than a century, which drove Milton and inspired the egalitarian passions of the Putney Debates.

A useful point of departure in this respect is the philosopher John Locke, venerated by Dunt as the person who ‘put forward the modern conception of liberty’, yet who, in the words of historian David Brion Davis, was the ‘last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery’. Here we see a pattern first emerge: while Dunt’s aim is to demonstrate liberalism’s ability to ward against authoritarianism, evidence to the contrary is either ignored or viewed as an aberration, wherein an incipient political tradition failed to live up to its own ideas. Yet it is only in recognising such problems as a feature, rather than an anomaly, that we can better understand how fascism emerges within liberal democratic societies.

Dunt’s panegyrics ignore much of this, with Locke’s Two Treatises on Government presented as innovative precisely because it framed ‘liberty, not authority’ as ‘the natural state of humankind’. Yet Locke also had personal investments in the slave trade and helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document which unapologetically defended slavery, notoriously stating that ‘every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.’ Locke also argued that it was appropriate to execute a pickpocket, and that poor children should be forced to work from the age of 3.

How is it possible that such a thinker can be viewed as the godfather of the liberal tradition — not only by Dunt, but by so many others too? The answer is that Locke — like many liberals who followed him — viewed freedom as something which applied exclusively to a privileged minority. For Locke it was property, and the right to possess and dispose of it freely, which was of the utmost importance. Through this fundamentalism, the contradiction of someone endorsing both liberty and slavery can be understood.

That strange conclusion wasn’t lost on Locke’s contemporaries; Samuel Johnson observed how ‘we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes.’ When rallying the cause of American independence in 1765, the future US president John Adams wrote of the London government: ‘We won’t be their negroes!’ Freedom meant the ‘freedom’ to enslave the non-European; America’s liberation struggle was borne of white settlers distinguishing themselves from those who deserved oppression.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that between two moments of supreme importance for Dunt — the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the American War of Independence some ninety years later — the transatlantic slave trade reached its apogee. That was because the emergence of the first liberal states — the Netherlands, and later Britain and the US — were not marginal to the arrival of chattel slavery, but its primary drivers. Far from alone in his apologia for slavery, Locke was joined by another celebrated forefather of liberalism, the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius, who argued that the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans was justified.

Not all of their contemporaries agreed with these conclusions. Ironically, some of the most prominent voices against slavery also advocated the principle of monarchy. They included Jean Bodin, the French legal theorist who said while ‘Europe was freed from slavery after about 1250 [ . . .] we see it today newly restored’. For Bodin, slavery was not a residue of the past, but a practice reinvigorated by new genres of politics and economics: liberalism and capitalism.

Yet for Dunt, what made the US a liberal republic was its constitution — whose fifth amendment offered the ‘Lockean formulation’ that ‘No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law’. But these noble words masked a very different reality. Of the nation’s first sixteen presidents, twelve were slaveholders. Giving writing materials to black slaves in Georgia was a criminal offence, and if a white woman had a child with a mixed-race or black man, even if they were free, she faced five years in servitude (the child faced thirty).

Thus while the United States was indeed ‘Lockean’ in character, this meant it was more of a master-race democracy than an experiment in universal rights. To grasp that, one need only read the 1790 Naturalisation Act, which permitted solely whites to become US citizens. The grim truth is that the American War of Independence was less a revolution than a rebellion by slaveowners who wanted self-government. As the historian Domenico Losurdo wrote, the equality that property-owners demanded with the sovereign, who could now only ever hope to be ‘first among equals’, went hand-in-hand with ‘the reification of servants, who tended to be likened to other objects of property. That is why liberalism and racial chattel slavery emerged together in a twin birth.’

From Constant to Mill and Keynes

It isn’t Locke, however, who Dunt identifies as the ‘world’s first truly modern liberal’. That accolade belongs instead to Benjamin Constant who, according to Dunt, sketched out ‘a blueprint for modern liberalism from the ruins of the Terror’ of the French Revolution. This is the same Constant who argued against compulsory schooling for children in that it violated the rights of ‘fathers over their children’, and disagreed with expanding the franchise.

As the author also notes, it was not until John Stuart Mill that liberalism in its modern sense took shape. Among other things, this is evident in Mill’s opposition to the workhouse. For his liberal contemporaries, such as Alexis De Tocqueville, it was self-evident that the workhouse should resemble a ‘prison’ rendering ‘our charity repugnant’, with the Frenchman condemning anything less than a 12-hour day and viewing rent controls as despotic. Meanwhile, Jeremy Bentham, a close friend of Mill’s father, not only designed the perfect system of surveillance — his infamous panopticon — but also believed paupers should be forced to wear uniforms. Neither De Tocqueville, Constant, nor Bentham supported an embryonic labour movement or universal suffrage.

This reveals something critically important. The authoritarian politics which Ian Dunt so passionately rallies against in fact draws substantially upon the very political tradition with which he identifies.

Even Mill believed liberal principles should only be applied to Europeans, thus removing their universal content. For the rest, he concluded, despotism was acceptable provided it create conditions for liberty in the future — a perspective which prefigured that of Kipling and the ‘white man’s burden’. Such thinking was frequently the default of nineteenth-century liberalism. As De Tocqueville himself would write, ‘the European race has received from heaven, or acquired by its own efforts, such incontestable superiority over the other races.’ Elsewhere, he would pose the question: ‘do the Indians have an idea that sooner or later, their race will be destroyed by ours?’

Such rhetoric was increasingly common as newer ideas of evolution and race science took hold across Europe. The best example of this can be found in the work of liberal theorist Herbert Spencer. In Social Statics, he wrote how ‘the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way [ . . .] Be he human or brute — the hindrance must be got rid of.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, the anarcho-capitalist thinker Murray Rothbard called Social Statics ‘the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.’ Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, figures like Diderot, Condorcet, and Ernest Jones made arguments against slavery, empire, and the extermination of indigenous peoples. Yet these were not liberals, however: the first two were Enlightenment radicals, and Jones a Chartist. It is here that Dunt ignores something of importance in refusing to examine how both traditions — of radicalism and conservatism — shaped modern liberalism and were shaped by it. How to Be a Liberal is all the weaker for it.

Yet given the book’s central objective, the most glaring omission is any discussion of liberalism’s inability to resist fascism in either Italy or Germany during the twentieth century. It is never mentioned that Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922 was welcomed by leading liberal figures, with the influential economist Luigi Einaudi endorsing the return of ‘classical liberalism’, while philosopher Benedetto Croce said fascism’s ‘pure liberalism’ was preferable to the previously democratic one. It is conveniently forgotten that in elections just one year before the March on Rome, Mussolini’s Fascists ran under an anti-socialist bloc led by liberal statesman Giovanni Giolitti.

Things weren’t much different in Germany. While the Centre Party voted to give Hitler power with the 1933 Enabling Act, 94 out of 120 Social Democratic Reichstag deputies voted against it — because 26 of their deputies had already been jailed, and all 81 Communist representatives were either imprisoned or in hiding after the prohibition of their organisation.

This is not to say liberalism is commensurate with fascism. Rather, it shows that there is no real evidence — as Dunt repeatedly asserts — that liberalism is the most effective means of fighting it. Such a failure is a result of its basic political commitments from Locke onwards, with a privileging of property rights above all else. Once you understand how Mussolini worked with liberal statesmen against a powerful working class, his ascent becomes far easier to comprehend.

Socialism and Liberalism

Despite all of this, Dunt inevitably invokes Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as equally depraved counterpoints to liberal modernity, mobilising the ‘horseshoe’ theory of ideology. Yet although he touches on laws in the former which prohibited sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, he fails to mention that similar ‘anti-miscegenation laws’, relating to non-whites, existed in the US until the 1960s — with nothing analogous to such legislation in the Soviet Union. Nor was there an analogue to the Ku Klux Klan, whose emergence in the early twentieth century arguably prefigured that of the Nazi Brownshirts.

Indeed, with regards to race, the United States and Nazi Germany shared elements in common, with both drawing extensively on a reservoir of racially supremacist sentiment in nineteenth-century thought. This is an area that Dunt bypasses because, one suspects, it would make his central hypothesis considerably shakier. The hypocrisy of such thinking extends beyond America, because while dozens of states had ‘Jim Crow’ legislation, a supposedly liberal Britain possessed a global empire and terrorised millions with an iron hand. Is this another aberration, such as slavery? The question is never even asked.

When the British Empire went to war against the Nazis, its forces included the Indian Army — the largest volunteer force in history. Yet they fought while the country’s elected political leadership — the Congress Party — were imprisoned. India never entered the war as a sovereign power, but as a subject one, and by 1943 it endured a famine that killed millions. Of course the enemy was an evil one, but that doesn’t make such actions any less illiberal and inhumane. The same applies to Britain’s war in Malaya, and its use of concentration camps not only there but in Kenya as recently as the 1950s. This is just a handful of examples of actually existing authoritarianism. There are dozens more.

Indeed, Dunt views the events of the Second World War as completely removed from the preceding history of imperialism, claiming that the Holocaust was a ‘liberal failure’. Yet Germany engaged in the extermination of the Herero people in Africa thirty years earlier, the concept of lebensraum itself dating back to 1897. And what of similar crimes against the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Americas, or the use of poison gas against Libyans by Italy in 1912 — undertaken not under the leadership of Mussolini, but the country’s liberal icon, Giolitti? Any examination of the historic record leaves one with a simple conclusion that is ignored throughout this book: European liberalism has a dark side, and it is far from the converse of fascism.

Dead End Project

Given such a failure to grasp history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that How to Be a Liberal lacks any proposals for dealing with the great challenges set to define this century. Instead issues like climate change, inequality, the housing crisis, and ageing populations give way to flights of fancy about the emergence of post-truth, the mysterious Vladimir Putin, and Nigel Farage’s role in introducing nationalism into British politics.

Dunt can’t be entirely blamed for this. Today’s political centre lacks realistic solutions to epochal problems. This, and nothing else, is the measure of any worldview: the rest is treating politics as a hobby. It is no longer the Left that finds comfort in dwelling on ideological abstraction, but the centre. In this regard, Dunt’s tour d’horizon — while interesting in many ways — is a morbid symptom of a status quo in disintegration.

Despite being widely read, How to Be a Liberal displays a limited understanding of liberalism, failing to grasp how the tradition has both shaped, and been shaped by, conservatism and socialism. While editing the Rheinische Zeitung, the young Marx claimed that paper championed ‘real liberalism’, as opposed to the ‘self-styled liberalism’ of the opposition in the German Diet. This broader context of the political tradition — also visible in the thinking of Mill and Keynes to some extent — remains unexplored in the book.

It is never examined why many of the breakthroughs Dunt admires have only ever enjoyed political urgency when adopted by the labour movement, be it the campaign for the 8-hour day or universal healthcare. For other lodestars eulogised throughout the book, such as Constant and Locke, such reforms would have been unwelcome, their political views more congruent with today’s far-right seeking to defend property and private profit above all else.

Hagiography has its limits. Socialists should be, and often are, open about the historic errors of our tradition. Perhaps liberals should try it too — after all, we’ve only been waiting 150 years.