Use your illusion
September 5, 2006
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is calling for a purge of “liberal and secular university professors”. Does he mean only those university professors who are both liberal and secular? Or that they go together, so that if one is liberal, one is necessarily secular too? In any case, it’s worrying news for poor old liberals, who can’t get a break from a Holocaust-denying theocrat any more than they can from Karl Rove. It hardly seems fair.
But wait, who are these “liberals” anyway? What does “liberal” actually mean when thus used as a term of contempt? Actually, it doesn’t matter what it means, as was pointed out long ago by Leszek Kolakowski . . .
Thanks to a characteristically excellent essay by Tony Judt in the NYRB, I have been prompted to read Kolakowski’s 1974 response to an an attack on him by E P Thompson. Kolakowski’s reply is called “My Correct Views on Everything” [pdf], and aside from having probably the best title of any essay ever written, and being a devastating display of sorrowful irony, it also brilliantly vivisects various Unspeak practices of Western Marxists – for example, their use of “liberal” as a dirty word:
[W]e have […] a number of negative words to provoke horror, for instance “anti-communism” or “liberal”. You use these words as well, Edward, without explanation, aware though you must be that the purpose of these words is to mingle many different things and to produce vague negative associations […] Who is a “liberal”? Perhaps a 19th-century free-trader who proclaimed that the state should forbear from interfering in the “free contract” between workers and employers and that workers’ unions were contrary to the free contract principle? Do you suggest that you are not “liberal” in this sense? This is very much to your credit. But according to the unwritten revolutionary OED you are “liberal” if you imagine in general that freedom is better than slavery (I do not mean the genuine, profound freedom people enjoy in socialist countries, but the miserable formal freedom invented by the bourgeoisie to deceive the toiling masses). And the word “liberal” has the easy task of amalgamating these and other things. And so, let us proclaim loudly that we spurn liberal illusions, but let us never explain what we exactly mean.
Plus ça change. If, as Kolakowski suggests, you add the concept of illusions, the rhetoric is even more useful. It costs nothing to say you are against “liberal illusions” – for who will stand up and say: “Hang on, I believe in a liberal illusion”? Yet the phrase also cleverly insinuates that everything liberal is necessarily also an illusion. “Liberal illusions” were flexible enough to be anathema both to Western communists and to hard-nosed cold warriors such as Irving Kristol. In our time, meanwhile, such men as Ahmadinejad and Christopher Hitchens are snug bedfellows in their hatred of “liberals”. It’s touching to see.