Rakesh on Turn To The Right (Our "Problem" with Liberalism)

jwalker jwalker at email.unc.edu
Wed Jul 26 07:59:24 MDT 1995

Since I was originally schooled in classic liberal political philosophy,
and since I still think there's a lot right in it, I feel the need to
come to its defense, a little bit.  (Unfortunately I missed Leo's original
post to which Rakesh is responding -- deleted with a bunch of junk mail.)

On Tue, 25 Jul 1995, jones/bhandari wrote:

> What are the historic origins of liberalism?

As it's used nowadays "liberalism" refers to a broad group of thinkers,
loosely bound together by common problems, and to some degree common
methodology.  It all started around the 16th century or so, when people
like Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf began questioning traditional
doctrines of natural political authority, and searching for a new moral
basis for state power.

The whole idea that people have prior moral claims against the state, the
king, whoever, was radical.  It meant that justifying the subjection of
people to political power was a nontrivial issue.

> As we have seen the principles of freedom, equality,universality--once
> useful for the overthrow of slavery-- can  easily be used against
> affirmative action.

> What I am getting at is that I do not think the problem is liberalism or
> democracy but our own beholdeness to the values and ideals which capital
> embodied in its defining moment, in the transition from strategies of
> absolute to relative surplus value, the rise in the IRA being both
> consequence and cause of this development.
> We don't need a language of liberalism or democracy but a class conscious
> one of freedom and human needs.

> Rakesh

See, I'd have said that the language of freedom and human needs is *part*
of the language of liberalism and democracy.  Sure, some forms of
liberalsim exalt formal equality and negative freedom over concern with
fulfilling human needs.  And, as you note, some of the emancipatory
language of liberalism gets misused to push illiberal causes, like the
opposition to affirmative action.

But this just shows that those forms of liberalism, and those uses of
liberal language, are misguided and wrong.  Anyone can claim a right, but
not every such claim is true.  The claims against affirmative action are
transparently wrong, I think, and can be shown to be so.

In my view, the good things about Marxism include its emphasis on the
class character of capitalist society and its recognition of the economic
dimension of political power.  These are not ideas you'll find in
liberalism -- not early liberalism, anyway.

But what this means is that Marxists should take what's good in
liberalism and appropriate it, while jettisoning what's bad.  Equality
before the law, certain personal freedoms, and democratic political
participation may be bourgeois, but they're truly good things, and any
just state must have them, no matter what *else* we may, as Marxists,
want to say about such a state.

John D. Walker
jwalker at email.unc.edu

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