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Use your illusion

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.

  1. 1  bobw  September 6, 2006, 6:53 am 

    Possibly the “liberals” that Thompson referred to were the waning political party in England at the time, somewhere to the left of the Tories, and right of Labor.

    Liberal to Amadinejad evidently does mean secular, or people who rely on empirical approaches to truth rather than religious. American conservatives, even intellectual ones like Pat Buchanan, hold the same view.

    As for liberals themselves, I dont know if they have been unfairly smeared, or have just given up the fight, sometime after Reagan. I at least am acutely aware, if not of liberal “illusions”, then of liberal hypocrisies — vague aspirations they still proclaim without doing much to bring them about.

  2. 2  SP  September 6, 2006, 7:49 am 

    No, Thompson used “liberal” quite as generally as Kolakowski says. His essay is here [pdf].

    Interesting suggestion that liberal means “people who rely on empirical approaches to truth”. Still, there have been plenty of totalitarian scientists, and I imagine Ahmadinejad wants good empiricists working on his nuclear programme.

  3. 3  abb1  September 6, 2006, 8:42 am 

    To me liberalism is the ideology that purpots to value individual freedom over equality and nationalism. Liberals take the first word out of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and say it’s the most important one, forget the other two. If you take the second one and ignore the rest, you have communism; the third one – fascism. All three are radical ideologies.

    Contemporary American liberalism is a bit more balanced than the classical one. There seem to be a bit of a split now, though, between those who would supplement ‘liberty’ with a fair amount of nationalism and those who prefer equality to nationalism.

  4. 4  bobw  September 6, 2006, 4:35 pm 

    abb1 — your definition of liberalism above is closer to old fashioned, intellectual conservatism (as distinct from electoral conservatism which is really a sham.) Maximum individual freedom, and opposition to the state, are central tenets of traditional conservatism. You can find this position all over, the libertarian website.

    Political liberalism, descending from Roosevelt, is heavily identified with the state, as in protecting civil rights, regulating business, etc. Rightists call this the “welfare state”. Leftists call it “socialism for the rich!”

  5. 5  SP  September 6, 2006, 4:39 pm 

    I think we can probably go back to at least J S Mill if we feel like it.

    Your “liberal”, abb1, is a straw man. No one who really cares about individual freedom can throw away all notions of equality, since individual freedom in any minimal social arrangement will depend on certain kinds of equality, eg equality of all before the law.

  6. 6  abb1  September 6, 2006, 5:53 pm 

    True, it doesn’t have to be radical ‘live free of die’ kind, egalitarianism certainly is in the mix. Still, individualism, individual rights (including property rights) is the main focus of this doctrine.

    Not that anything’s wrong with that. Seriously, I do like mainstream liberalism – capitalism with a human face; it’s good.

  7. 7  abb1  September 6, 2006, 6:07 pm 

    Although when critics from socialist left and nationalist right point to certain contradictions – I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss it as mere demagoguery; not all of it anyway.

  8. 8  SP  September 6, 2006, 6:28 pm 

    Sure, but we should perhaps demand to know who/what they’re talking about…

    It’s interesting to compare “liberal” to “neo-liberal”. Like “conservative” and “neo-conservative”. Does “neo-” now actually mean “the opposite of”?

  9. 9  abb1  September 6, 2006, 6:54 pm 

    Well, Milton Friedman in his Capitalism and Freedom (1960s? 50s?) is bitterly complaining about the word ‘liberalism’ being ‘unspoken’ by the proponents of ‘big government’; and he decides to keep using ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberal’ in the classical sense anyway. So, they’re just trying take their word back, that’s all.

  10. 10  bobw  September 6, 2006, 7:01 pm 

    SP, now you’re getting into the really confusing areas. Many neo-conservatives originally were “liberals” — Cold War liberals — who came to believe the Democrats werent being tough enough on Russia and so shifted over to the Republicans. As many people have pointed out, neo-conservatism is anything but conservative — in fact, it’s quite radical, even Leninist, in its world-changing aspirations.

    I’ve only heard neo-liberal used in discussions of economic policy, where it’s roughly equivalent to deregulation and privatization, both deomestically and internationally. These are radical programs in a different sense, attempting to replace the concepts of nation and democracy with the “laws of the market.”

  11. 11  SP  September 6, 2006, 10:38 pm 

    See chapter eight. ;)

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