That Infamous Turn To The Right (Our "Problem" with Liberalism)

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Tue Jul 25 20:53:19 MDT 1995

I thought Leo's comments were very interesting.

Where I would criticize him would be in his apparent straightforward
identification of multiculturalism etc. with liberalism--that seems to be
giving up the argument (which I agree needs to be considered more
carefully) too easily: liberalism is very good at appropriating other
politics in its guise of "tolerance," and we shouldn't fall into slipshod
acceptance of such appropriation.  Most obviously, although there are and
have been self-consciously liberal feminisms, there are plenty other
varieties.  But the same goes for other movements which may pass
occasionally under the (liberal?) rubric of multiculturalism: black
nationalism, most of lesbian and gay politics etc.  Which is not to say,
as Leo points out, that mere anti-liberalism makes for a political
position that is immune to critique.  But it is equally a (paranoid,
liberal) mistake to present the "other" of liberalism (whether fascism,
communism or whatever) as a homogenous threat to social rights or social

Moreover, I would argue that even when social movements understand
themselves along liberal lines, their power and effectiveness almost
inevitably arises as a consequence of their practicing quite different
pragmatic politics, and when they come to rely on (or believe?) their own
liberal rhetoric, that can be when they lose practical legitmacy, even
when they appear to have gained it, as judged by liberal standards.

But what is liberalism, anyway?  Stanley Fish (no marxist he, though cast
as one by an 80s establishment that precisely considered any challenge to
liberal tenets to be equal to some "anti-democratic communist threat") is
teaching a class on "Liberalism and Legal Theory" this coming semester,
and here is a bit of his course proposal:

"In what is almost an aside, John Locke in his _Letter Concerning
Toleration_ declares that to deny God, even in thought, is to dissolve
all bonds.  What makes this statement so interesting is the fact that
Locke is always cited as one of the chief forebears and begetters of a
system of political thought--call it liberalism--that sets itself the
task of constructing a just and secure society in the absence of any
reference to God that is more than just ceremonial.  The project of
liberalism can be thought of as an extension of the Reformation, and as
beset by the same problems: the nature of authority, the relationship of
individual freedom to truth and virtue, the tension between the doctrine
of inner light and the Biblical injunction: 'Be ye perfect.'"

Incidentally, I have to choose my classes for next semester shortly, and
this class clashes with Fred Jameson's "Brecht."  Any advice as to which
(if any) to take?

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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