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It's not a good time to celebrate the liberal tradition - Scotsman and Financial Times review Liberalism: A Counter-History

Rowan Wilson16 May 2011

Gavin Bowd reviews Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History in the Scotsman, focusing on Losurdo's account of the early liberals who championed slavery:

From the outset, the liberal tradition had a dark side to rival that of the "totalitarian" ideologies of the 20th century: founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson rebelled against the Crown to have the right to keep slaves and seize land from the redskins; John Locke, then Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill supported the enslavement and extermination of "savage beasts", opposed racial miscegenation and celebrated the flexing of western liberal muscle in such bloody enterprises as the Opium Wars.

In his extensive review of the book in the Financial Times, Peter Clarke notes that liberalism is under attack across the world: in the United States the word liberal is seen as a 'dirty word', Britain's Liberal Democrats are being undermined by the Tories, and the Canadian Liberals were decimated in the recent elections.

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.

Clarke argues that Losurdo's point isn't simply to denigrate the liberal tradition:

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."

Also, see a podcast interview with Losurdo by Tony Curzon Price on OpenDemocracy.