Blog post

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History sparks debate

Leo Goretti22 September 2011

Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History is a thorn in the side of twenty-first century liberals. Losurdo's mordant exposition of the racist, classist ideas put forward by giants of liberalism, such as John Locke, Jeremy Bentham or Alexis De Tocqueville, calls into question the liberal nature itself of their thought. In a long review for the Times Literary Supplement, Jennifer Pitts, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Chicago University, takes Losurdo's counter-history as a starting point to reflect on: "how, and why ... should we tell the history of liberalism today?"

Pitts recognizes that Liberalism: A Counter-History "is a book of wide reference and real erudition." The modern, liberal reader cannot but find some of the excerpts quoted by Losurdo (for example, Tocqueville's brutal views on how to wage war on Algerian natives) "duly dismaying." Nonetheless, in her view, Losurdo tells just one side of the story: "this is a history as partial as any apologia." According to her, Losurdo's book would focus only on the "most unsavoury positions" expressed by classic liberals, and would tend to overlook "their ambivalence, internal disagreements and compromises."

Pitts herself, however, does not provide a convincing explanation for the glaring contradiction between advocating ideals of freedom and, say, supporting European colonialism, as in the case of Mill or Tocqueville. The questions that Losurdo's book asks to today's liberals are still to be answered:

We might return to the idea of liberalism as a set of characteristic dispositions, and ask in a more critical vein what sorts of arguments or policies have tended to emerge from these inclinations under various historical circumstances. What have been liberals' current preoccupations? What sort of apparent inconsistencies have they habitually betrayed, and what do these tell us about liberal commitments? When are seeming inconsistencies evidence of hypocrisy or a self-interested refusal to extend privileges claimed on behalf of one group to others?  When do they reveal unexamined cultural prejudices, or racism? When do they point to other, perhaps unacknowledged but no less characteristic, liberal dispositions?

Jennifers Pitts review appears in the Times Literary Supplement print edition dated 23 September.