U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Left and Liberalism: A Conversation with James Livingston

What follows is an interview I conducted with Jim Livingston over email. Livingston, Rutgers historian, author most recently of No More Work, and longtime (feisty) friend of the blog, has been having an ongoing debate on his Facebook page about why the left seems to be so anti-liberal, a problem for him. Although these FB threads are revealing if often overheated, I thought that Jim was hiding the history behind his argument–history that he’s been trying to work through for several decades, at least since his 1994 book Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution. As I had hoped, a few pressing questions from me motivated him to undertake a much more thorough, historical, and theoretical elaboration of his position. Enjoy. And fight back if you disagree. 

AH: You’ve been arguing about the history, legacy, and meaning of the left in relation to liberalism with many people on your Facebook page for the past week. It seems that many on the left are heavily invested right now in distinguishing their political tradition from the liberal tradition. I argue that there are historically good reasons for this—that the American left has long defined itself in opposition to American liberalism in large part because Hartz was right, or at least seemed right, that the liberal tradition was the only game in town. But you seem to think that such hard-and-fast distinctions speak to sectarianism. Are those the stakes as you see them? And why have you been using the “Alt-Left” label to describe the anti-liberalism of the left? In doing this you seem to equate the far left and far right, or the “Alt-Right” that people have been fretting about since Trump’s election. Is this useful? It seems to me a move back to the Vital Center or the horseshoe theory, and frankly I don’t see any use in that. 

JL: My remarks at Facebook over the last few weeks are elaborations or extensions of arguments I’ve been making for years.  These arguments were implicit, at least, in the 1994 book, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, more obvious in the 2001 book, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy, and made explicit in my 2004 essay on Eugene D. Genovese for Radical History Review.

My premise was not, and is not, that liberalism is the only game in town as per Louis Hartz—I think John Pocock and others did us all a huge favor by rehabilitating civic republicanism as a “recessive” yet significant gene in the pool that constitutes the American political tradition (think of the Port Huron Statement)—but rather that socialism, like capitalism, is an extremely variegated political phenomenon.  Like capitalism, it can be liberal and democratic, or statist and authoritarian.  In history, as against theory, it has no predictable political valence.

Perhaps a better, more direct way to put this is to say that socialism cannot survive without markets. Absent a liberal insistence on the supremacy of civil society over the state—the sovereignty of the people—socialism will devolve into command economies and authoritarian regimes, as in Russia and China, which between them take up almost the entire Eurasian land mass.

Put it another, more provocative way.  Socialism was a component of fascism in Italy and Germany.  The fascists, like the communists inspired by Marxism—another unstable, unpredictable isotope—promised to abolish the decadence of bourgeois individualism by annihilating the modern liberal distinction, or opposition, between state and society most clearly articulated by John Locke and the Anglo-American empiricists who followed his lead, among them David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, James Madison, David Ricardo, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill.

In both cases, fascism and communism, from Georges Sorel and Carl Schmitt and Giovanni Papini to Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, the state—actually, the party—supplanted society, and with it both markets and the modern individual born of civil society (on this gestation Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Grundrisse are the key texts).  The communist parties of the interwar years were no less bent on dismantling liberalism in this sense than were the fascists.  Either way, it was a bloodbath.

The two socialist writers who warned us most effectively against the repudiation of liberalism, because they understood how that move would undermine democracy itself, were Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism (1899), and Carlo Rosselli in Liberal Socialism (1930).  Lenin denounced Bernstein as a “revisionist,” a traitor to the cause of Bolshevism and, eventually, communism.  That label has stuck for more than a century, partly because Bernstein valorized markets, small business (the petty bourgeoisie!), civil society, political pluralism, always insisting that the means used by the socialist movement would determine its political end—social democracy or party dictatorship.

Rosselli is the more obscure figure.  He was murdered by fascist assassins in 1937, while in exile in France—having fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he was trying to generate European support for opposition to Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.  Liberal Socialism is his indictment of both the Marxists and the fascists, on the grounds that they were equally willing to destroy modernity itself in the name of a new order, a new man.

I mention Bernstein and Rosselli because they’re voices from the past, my past, that remind me, anyway, of how honorable and necessary political commitments can be disfigured by turning the founding gestures of modernity into enemies of the people.

What can I possibly mean by this statement, which verges on the melodramatic if not the apocalyptic?  These gestures, as I call them, were causes and effects of the Age of Revolution, ca, 1770-1820.  First, “Man as Man is free.”  That’s Hegel.  Second, and consequently, “All men are created equal.”  That’s us.  Third, liberty is impossible in the absence of equality.  Also us.  Fourth, the people out of doors are sovereign, not the state, not the party, not the government, not the cabinet, not the parliament, not the legislature, and not the ministers.  Again, us—but every revolution since that one is animated by the same urge.

In our time, the Right has been the genuine threat to both liberty and equality.  By curtailing the right to privacy, abortion rights, and meanwhile promoting income inequality, thus eroding social mobility and opportunity.  By rescinding hard-won voting rights, defunding education, protecting the 1% at everyone else’s expense.

But the Left has, to my mind, recently been more interested in the project of equality than liberty, and this (again, honorable) commitment has permitted or required a deployment of state power that seems, to me, a danger to the rights we can claim as citizens and the liberal legacy that informs them.  I’m thinking, of course, of the Title IX inquisitions that have challenged the free speech and the academic freedom of professors who have protested their reach.  But it’s not just on campus that the Left wants to be illiberal.

I don’t want to prove Bernstein and Rosselli right.  I want to demonstrate that socialism and liberalism are not just compatible, they’re essential ingredients of each other.  The Left needs liberalism, and vice versa.

AH: That is an excellent thumbnail intellectual history of your project that adds important context to your Facebook provocations. There is a lot to agree with here, particularly the idea that socialism is a project of modernity and that we should not be in the habit of rejecting modernity. But let me push you to clarify a few things.

Can you say more about the state-society distinction that you see as crucial to liberalism—give us more of this distinction’s intellectual history? If democracy is one of the goals of the left—and surely it must be—then we must be vigilant in the face of an authoritarian state. On that we agree. But in valorizing civil society against the state, many on the left will have a problem with your emphasis that markets are a crucial ingredient of civil society. Markets might not be anti-democratic or authoritarian in theory, but the way in which The Market is used as a sledge hammer for the power of the 1% at everyone else’s expense—especially in our neoliberal age but of course Marx warned about this 150 years ago—it’s difficult to imagine another world in which markets are liberating. I know you have written about this in some of your recent work, so perhaps you might expand here.

The kneejerk anti-liberal rhetoric by many on the left in our current moment is not necessarily grounded in intellectual history—especially your alternative, dare I say revisionist narrative of liberalism—but is rather a product of recent political events, namely the 2016 election. As this just-so story goes, a liberal defeated a socialist in the Democratic primaries before losing to a fascist in the general election precisely because of her liberalism. This is an oversimplification, yet it is a useful story because it sheds light on popular conceptions of liberalism that inform the left. You write that “the Right has been the genuine threat to both liberty and equality.” But leading liberals have been complicit with the right, and your effort to reclaim liberalism for the left is going to run up against this basic fact. Perhaps you should have more patience with the current anti-liberal mood on the left?

Let me also return to Hartz because I am not convinced that Pocock’s civic republicanism is distinct from American liberalism in any meaningful fashion. If we read Hartz seriously, we must come to the conclusion that liberalism in an American context, especially as it developed in the twentieth century, is not a very good philosophy on which to base revolutionary or even reformist politics. Hartz believed liberalism a superior political philosophy to its challengers on the left and the right, and that the United States was exceptional in its dedication to it. But he also recognized that the American liberal tradition displayed “a vast and almost charming innocence of mind.” Because American liberalism lacked the “class passion” that animated European politics—the passion that gave life to revolutionary and reactionary forces— it was premised on the assumption that moral questions about the good life had been settled. And when ethics are taken for granted, Hartz argued, “all problems emerge as problems of technique.” This technocratic disposition explained the “unusual power of the Supreme Court and the cult of constitution worship” in American political life. Americans had replaced political speculation with legal tinkering. The American liberal tradition, in this way, was less a political philosophy than an anti-philosophy. Maybe what I am doing here is arguing that in an American context, the concern should not be about socialists embracing liberalism, but rather vice versa, liberals adopting socialism.

JL: Why do leftists see liberalism as a constraint on democratic socialism, rather than a necessary condition of it?  Bernie Sanders would seem to be a case study of their affiliations—their elective affinities, you might say.  He’s a democratic socialist committed to the fundamental principles of liberalism: to the supremacy of (civil) society over the state, to individualism as guaranteed by this relationship, and to the proposition that positive government is necessary because markets cannot and do not regulate themselves.  But no.  The either/or choice remains.

As I understand the Left’s current demographic and intellectual architecture, it has three complaints against liberalism.  First, liberalism valorizes liberty as against equality, and reduces liberty to freedom of contract: it presupposes markets as the infrastructure of civil society, and posits them as the necessary condition of democracy as such.  Second, it promotes individualism as against community or collective identities; indeed its emphasis on inviolable rights—and its corollary, consent as the principle of political obligation—tends to muffle minority voices and thwart majority rule.  Third, it sanctions imperialism and the militarization of foreign policy.

It’s not an exhaustive list of leftist complaints about liberalism.  But these are the essentials as I have come to understand them.  In addressing Complaint 1, I’m starting on an answer to your first query, about markets.

For the argument about liberty versus equality, see Michael Kazin, American Dreamers, Eli Zaretsky, Why America Needs a Left, and their antecedents in the anti-Federalist (Progressive) historiographical vein, Turner and Beard to Jensen and Lynd, on toward Gerald Horne.  This argument perversely echoes those of the libertarian Right, which also sees liberty and equality as mutually exclusive commitments.

I don’t buy it.  Tom Paine, Sam Adams, and James Madison were consummate liberals according to my specs—also radicals, each in his own way—who cited Locke in arguing against the claim of parliamentary sovereignty and for the supremacy of society over the state.  But all three understood that liberty as grounded, to be sure, in property rights was at risk insofar as equality was not the political goal or the social norm of the people and its polity.

Madison was particularly adamant, consistent, and articulate about it, nowhere more so than in his 1787 letter to Jefferson on his friend’s draft of a state constitution for Virginia, written as a distillation of his thinking about republics ancient and modern, and his private memorandum of 1821, written as the Missouri crisis unfolded.  It was Madison who insisted that the “two cardinal objects of Government” were “the rights of persons and the rights of property,” and that all previous republics had failed as popular government because the rights of property had superseded the rights of persons and had therefore reduced the polity to an oligarchy—“the poor were sacrificed to the rich,” as he put it.  The new American republic would also fail if its founders followed that uniform example.  Sure enough, the old American republic is now failing because the so-called conservatives of our time have forgotten, or repressed, this original intent, that is, to guarantee that the rights of persons would modulate, contain, and, if necessary, countermand the rights of property.

Now, we all know that corporate liberalism bears little resemblance to the Manchester School variety of the 19th century.  But the liberal tradition in America as depicted by Hartz, Hofstadter, Williams, and Sklar—“consensus” historians, you might say—is still a continuum defined by those fundamental principles I began with, including the lack of faith in self-regulating markets and the consistent belief in positive government.  The Jeffersonians devised the activist American System (protective tariffs, “internal improvements,“ Bank of the US) as their answer to Alexander Hamilton’s anemic attempt to make the US a junior partner in the British Empire.  The Whigs advocated “internal improvements” even after the southern wing of the party revolted in the 1840s.  The Republicans drew up a blueprint for modern America that made the federal government the engine of economic growth and development until the 20th century, when its animating force became even greater.  Across the entire 19th century, the only exception to the rule of liberalism, so conceived, was the “do-nothing” governments led by Jacksonian Democrats, but they were aggressive advocates of territorial expansion by means of “Indian removal” and war against Mexico—in the name of slavery.

The corporate liberals of the early 20th century knew that the question of their time was not whether but how to regulate, or rather reinvent, the market: “ruinous competition” and “overproduction” had created one crisis after another, often punctuated by class conflict and armed struggle.  They also understood that their pro-capitalist ideas and programs had to address and contain socialism (as well as Populism) if they were to be taken seriously by the American people.  In this crucial sense, they believed as the founders did, that equality and liberty—or the rights of persons and the rights of property—were not the terms of an either/or choice.  In the same sense, they also believed that the programmatic differences between their liberalism and the Left’s socialism were a matter of degree, not kind.

The corporate liberals carried the day in the Progressive Era because their ideas and programs were consistent with the central, founding principle of American politics—the supremacy of society over the state.  Neither the socialists nor the Populists could make that claim at the time, because their ideas and programs did subordinate civil society to state command; so they lost the “war of position” fought over the future of the corporation.  But corporate liberals like Theodore Roosevelt did draw imaginatively on the Left’s statist vision of regulation and reform, in the hope of avoiding either a corporatist state that was the servant of large capital or a socialist regime that replaced private property in large-scale enterprise with state ownership; among his many successors in these terms were FDR, LBJ, and MLK.

In the Osawatomie speech of August, 1910, for example, TR recalled Madison’s two cardinal objects of government: “We are face to face with new conceptions of the relation of property to human welfare,” he declared, because every businessman, every employer, “holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”   Or again: “It is not even enough that [wealth] should have been gained without doing damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.  This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active government interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”

That was the political philosophy of the Bull Moose program TR outlined at Osawatomie.   Is it liberal or socialist?  Or both?  Among the reforms he mentioned in the same speech were environmental conservation, progressive income and estate taxes, workmen’s compensation, legal guarantees of workplace safety, regulation of child and women’s labor, expanded public education, farm co-ops, day care centers for working women, higher wages, lower hours . . . .

Let me turn briefly to the more general question of markets as such.  You say that the modern liberal state/society distinction or opposition is a useful check on authoritarian regimes, here as elsewhere.  But you go on to say that it’s “difficult to imagine another world in which markets are liberating.”  I find that hard to believe, Andrew, because you’re an accomplished intellectual historian.

Think of the inhabitants of the Soviet bloc before, during, and after the Prague Spring, then before, during and after Solidarity, glasnost, perestroika, the Velvet Revolution.  Think of the women liberated from the patriarchal household and familial roles by their participation in the labor market—before the Civil War, again in the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism, then during the 1940s and 50s.   Think of the apprentices similarly freed of that household in the antebellum decades, and of the freedmen who understood wage labor as a welcome alternative to slavery.

In the late-19th century, the Knights of Labor believed, with good reason, that if all participants in the market—all producers—were equally subject to the same laws of supply and demand, equality would be the result.  Big business, monopolies, “the trusts,” these were artificial entities that could manipulate such laws, and so impair equality.  They obtruded on the arm’s length bargaining that made all buyers equal in the view of the seller, and vice versa.

In the mid-20th century, the economists of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia realized that the model of “extensive growth” derived from the Plan and driven by saving and investment would either be replaced by the Western, specifically American model of “intensive growth” determined by uncoordinated consumer preferences and demand—or it would fall into a prolonged crisis that destroyed the Soviet experiment, first with a whimper, then with a bang.  Wlodzimierz Brus, Radoslav Selucky, Istvan Friss, and many others preached a large dose of commodity fetishism in the 1950s and 60s.  They knew that socialism couldn’t survive without markets.  By now, we ought to be able to understand their position.

As for your second query, let me first see if I understand you.  I’ll translate it as three statements.  The Left’s anti-liberal attitude is a recent phenomenon animated by the 2016 election, not one grounded in a deeper past.  The neoliberals have in fact conspired with the Right to undermine democratic values, and to elect as president someone we can plausibly designate a neo-fascist.  No wonder leftists have indulged in anti-liberal antics, both rhetorical and otherwise.

My previous remarks already express my disagreement with this formulation.  Your argument, that the Left has always defined itself as against the vital center, the liberal mainstream, is also inconsistent with that formulation.  We both know that the history of the Left over the last hundred years is strewn with examples of socialists and Marxists who believed that liberalism was simply the ideology of capitalism, and who behaved accordingly—as if liberals are the enemy.

The novelty of the current Left’s anti-liberal animus is not that it exists, but that its headquarters are to be found on campus and in the art world, where liberal toleration, free speech, and intellectual diversity once reigned.

Now, was I a little too hard on the comrades by suggesting a moral equivalence between an alt-left and the alt-right? Probably.  I was trying to grasp the deep hatred of liberals and liberalism that motivates both the Left and the Right, and to pose two questions.  Does the mainstream of American political discourse remain liberal?  Or has the paranoid style that once patrolled only its margins now guard the middle ground as well?

Onto your query 3, in re: Hartz and the vitality of the liberal tradition.

There is a crucial difference between civic republicanism as Pocock portrayed it and liberalism as Hartz portrayed it.  That difference derives from the attitudes toward history each tradition afforded its practitioners.  Republicanism sustained the “quarrel of the self with history”—that is, the notion that commercial development and the division of labor would necessarily corrupt the citizens of the republic.  Liberalism never got in that bind because commercial development was built into its periodization of modernity.  In Pocock’s terms, it was closer to the “ethos of historicist socialism,” which saw in industrial capitalism not the eclipse of morality but the emergence of a new moral universe.

Liberals are better equipped to underwrite reformist or radical politics, then, because from their standpoint history is not by definition a movement away from a fixed standard of genuine selfhood or from authentic ways of life.  Previous truths and novel facts go together in the liberal purview.  Or, to put it another way, liberals are more likely than radicals and conservatives to see that ethical principles (“ought”) and historical circumstances (“is”) are not necessarily at odds.

Now, as for the Hartizan verdict on the innocence of class consciousness and conflict in the liberal mind.  It’s totally inconsistent with the historical record.  It’s a function of the American intellectual’s need to believe that previous generations avoided the language of class.  The 19th and 20th century liberals I have read are steeped in this language because they feared the effect of class formation on republican political forms, and sought to pacify class conflict by economic means.

Questions about the good life have been equally profuse within the American liberal-pragmatic tradition.  Think of the anxiety that saturates the discussion of liberalism itself in the 1950s—Hofstadter, Mills, Bell, et al.  Hartz’s real complaint, like those of Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin at the very same moment, is that the answers liberals offered weren’t variations on classical themes, that is, they weren’t political in the Aristotelian sense.

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a fascinating discussion, and it reminds me of why I’ve always enjoyed Jim Livingston’s incisive view of American history. I’m going to disagree with Jim here, but I want to stress at the outset that I really admire a lot of what he’s said above.

    My disagreement begins with the idea of republicanism. As we learn from Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, the idea of “republican virtue” was paramount in the American founding — that is, people who were independent (owned property), equal (not nobles or slaves), and believed in the public good deserved to be among the ruling class. This idea was soon married to a moral argument about the American character, best articulated by Parson Weems: virtuous Americans should be hardworking, religious, humble, honest, generous, and self-reliant. Since 1800, liberalism and the state-society distinction (I’m aware that liberalism and republicanism aren’t the same tradition, as per Joyce Appleby, but bear with me) have functioned pretty well for the people who fit that description: white, generally male, at least lower-middle class, and who are perceived by others to possess something like the moral character Weems laid out. They have not, however, functioned particularly well for people who do not meet that description: women, the poor, people perceived as not being of good moral character (see Rep. Mo Brooks’ comments this week that people who don’t live “the right way” aren’t entitled to health care, or Rick Santelli’s classic rhetorical question, “Who wants to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?”), and above all for African Americans and other racial minorities. In fact, despite our somewhat misguided celebrations of incremental progress, our society has functioned pretty horribly for all of those people. This is the concept of herrenvolk democracy, as explained by George Fredrickson: an effective representative democracy for some, built on the slavery and oppression of others. Nothing in Locke, Madison, or the rest offers any substantial recourse to the perpetually oppressed in American society; neither does the state-society distinction, which oppressed groups have often tried to collapse, going back at least to the civil rights movement and its reliance on federal power to forcibly desegregate the South.

    More compelling here are the arguments of anticolonial and postcolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X, and others. Fanon puts this argument very simply: colonialism and oppression are acts of war, and resistance by the oppressed, by any means necessary, is justified as an act of self-defense. He is not opposed to the state-society distinction or to liberalism in theory, but he essentially sees them as peacetime philosophies, not relevant to the sort of war oppression represents. For the perpetually oppressed, the state is best understood not as the ultimate enemy, but as a weapon that is usually deployed against them by their real enemy, the oppressor class. If the oppressed class can gain control of the state and use it as a weapon against their oppressors — “The ballot or the bullet,” Malcolm says, viewing the two as equally viable tools in the hands of the oppressed — we should not begrudge their doing so.

    On the contrary, for sympathetic members of the oppressor class to criticize oppressed people’s use of the tools at their disposal — be they Title IX investigations, protests, or in Robert F. Williams’ case, actual guns — is wildly inappropriate and is, in fact, itself a form of oppression. Recall Martin Luther King’s statement in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that white moderates who tell civil rights activists not to protest are more dangerous than the Ku Klux Klan — this is exactly what he is saying. Members of the oppressor class should not criticize oppressed people’s use of the state or of any other weapon in service of their own liberation; that is a discussion for the oppressed to have among themselves, and cannot be engaged by allies without furthering the system of oppression itself. Jim seems worried that this particular weapon launches us on a slippery slope to Leninism, and perhaps it does; but let’s worry about what oppressed minorities will do with power after they actually get some, shall we?

  2. I have a somewhat different plaint than Jeremy Young.

    Livingston says:

    Perhaps a better, more direct way to put this is to say that socialism cannot survive without markets.

    Without nuancing the word “markets.” Perhaps he would argue that socialism itself is the nuancer. But perhaps not.

    In any case, more fleshing out of what “the market” is — and insights from things like behavioral psychology and human fiscal irrationality, and plumbing further how much Smith’s “invisible hand” was influenced by Deism, and more, all seem desirable.

  3. Really fascinating. In the interests of exploring this great discussion even further, I wonder if Jeremy Young’s response misses some nuances in Livingston’s account? I’m not sure. I’m thinking it over. It’s likely that I missed the boat some. What was and is meant by republican “virtue” here? To illustrate this, let me extrapolate some from the version of republicanism offered by a thinker like Arendt–continuing Livingston’s thoughts in an idiosyncratic direction and despite her “Little Rock” essay (see Richard King on this). I mean how republicanism or virtue notions, in Arendt’s hands, meant the idea that political space is the space of freedom and human action. In this version of republicanism, potentially anyway, political spaces aren’t just weapons of an oppressor class or occasions for enforcing some restrictive idea of “American character” or whatever. Moral prescriptions of that kind aren’t what is and what was meant by republican virtue. That stuff about “deserving” this or that has more to do with some warped version of Weberian worldly asceticism or the like. It has to do with the kind of pursuits of happiness that individuals take on for themselves apart from the state, the space that liberalism provides.

    Rather, the idea and desire for human freedom is not always just about who gets in and who doesn’t. (Of course, to be fair, the Greek polis was pretty clearly delineated in terms of citizens and non-citizens.) For Arendt, the political space comes from the ranks of the willing. This is so because freedom resists those blanket considerations of mass categories; it posits human beings in circumstances of plurality with one another, where each person is a who and not a what, an irreducibly complex individual who enacts that selfhood or “authenticity” as Jim puts it, in the space of freedom. In this sense, MLK’s insistence upon black people being “somebody,” potentially realized in those spaces of political freedom, opened up by the movement, also meant reimagining the state or the polis in novel ways. Think about what happened in Mississippi in 1964. There, activists, by means of a “mock election” turned deadly serious, in effect potentially recast the very structures and workings of government. It was radical because it wasn’t simply a “weapon” of the oppressor but a dynamic and novel idea about what the structure could be and how it could work. They made their own parallel party, taught it, discussed it, debated it, and then attempted to bring it to fruition. They failed, but their example should inspire all of us.

    That said, in On Revolution anyway, Arendt knew well enough that Madison and those with him had the opportunity to open these spaces in the way that they did because of a lack of worry over compassion. Slavery obviated the need to deal with the social question of oppression in the way that the French revolutionaries inevitably had to confront it. But this doesn’t suggest to me that, despite this horrible irony, and lack of vision, civil rights activists almost a couple hundred years later saw their action as somehow merely taking on the weapons of their oppressors. Rather, for some, working in a long black church tradition of Exodus tropes and figures, they made their own space and tried to transform the narrow considerations of the “founders” into something new. They were founders too. This taking-up-the-weapons-of-the-oppressors business, is maybe better considered in the context of “changing the joke and slipping the yoke” (to use a phrase Ralph Ellison was fond of). If seen only as structures into which oppressed people worked and work, then the revolutionary potential of the space of freedom gets lost. There’s no novelty in that view.

    The issue over liberalism and republicanism, as I see Livingston construing it here, has to do with how to bring the social question into view, against Arendt, who thought that the political space shouldn’t admit those questions lest it be corrupted. He suggests that liberals can do this better than republicans because “Liberalism never got in that bind because commercial development was built into its periodization of modernity.” It provides some as it abides I guess. (I mean this “abide” in both in the compulsory sense of Adorno and in the sense of continuing a la “the dude” Lebowski.) So against Hartman’s idea that civic republicanism isn’t “distinct from liberalism in any meaningful fashion” (to be fair he cites Pocock, not Arendt) it’s clear to me that the differences are meaningful.

    I really haven’t thought enough about it yet to reach the conclusions Livingston has, nor to know if I agree or disagree, seeing how I read novels most of the time these days, but at the very least I can see how this perspective seems pragmatic, particularly if it leads, as William James wondered, to some future “socialistic equilibrium.”

    • Thanks for this. I think you’re right to suggest that the presiding spirits here are Hannah Arendt and William James. Liberalism is the social-intellectual space between them, polis to pluralism.

  4. To the point: looked it up in my copy and James wrote “socialist equilibrium.”

  5. I just want to dart in from the side to add to the lively and illumination exchanges between Peter K and Jim Livingston, with Andrew Hartman as interrogator and friendly provocateur. A couple of important points about Arendt’s thinking on the liberalism/republicanism tension are need keeping in mind. First, she does not automatically identify the state with the political realm.Non state actors, i.e. Solidarity or SNCC in Lowndes Co. Alabama can be intensely political insofar as they are concerned with the revival of the public realm via speech and action in public, to use the Arendtian locutions. This is not to say all political action is revolutionary or exemplifies civil disobedience or challenges the existing state order, but some of it does. (Arendt’s last really interesting essay was on civil disobedience.) So clearly Arendt’s thought problematizes(sic) a neat state/ civil society distinction. The weakness is that she never elaborates on how and when a social movement becomes political.
    Second, from the word go, rights in America have been about more than protecting existing property relationships, ranging over time from rights of labor against slave-owners and large corporations to rights of protection against the all powerful state. Free blacks used the Declaration of Independence to challenge the enslavement of spouses and other related matters. Rights and liberties, as per the Bill of Rights, have been central in creating and protecting a public space (of debate and action) and a private realm where conscience and belief could be freely exercized. Liberalism and republicanism often maintain the same political institutions and values but for different reasons.
    By the way, there is a kind of recessive socialist or at least social democratic gene(to vary Livingston’s nice phrase) in republicanism insofar as luxury and exclusive pursuit of private interests are seen as politically corrupting and their is no taboo on state-regulation of economic life. But republicanism does have a problem with class based politics. I would also second Peter K’s observation that Arendt’s political ethics are precisely that–political. They are not concerned with values and practices that regulate personal, private behaviour in the sphere of intimacy or the family.

    Thanks, Richard King

  6. I can’t demarcate offhand all of the ages of liberalism, bit Jim’s narrative seems to conflate some of them. In particular, you have a post-WW2 liberalism that irritated the New Left, especially on race and imperialism, and a post-1976 or post-1992 liberalism that has irritated the 21st century left. Both of these liberalism s were mostly PMC technocratic. Neither valued civil society to the extent they should’ve (i.e. grassroots movements of solidarity). Both overvalued markets and corporations). – TL

  7. Reading down in the original post, I just came to this remark of James Livingston’s:

    It was Madison who insisted that the “two cardinal objects of Government” were “the rights of persons and the rights of property,” and that all previous republics had failed as popular government because the rights of property had superseded the rights of persons and had therefore reduced the polity to an oligarchy—“the poor were sacrificed to the rich,” as he put it. The new American republic would also fail if its founders followed that uniform example. Sure enough, the old American republic is now failing because the so-called conservatives of our time have forgotten, or repressed, this original intent, that is, to guarantee that the rights of persons would modulate, contain, and, if necessary, countermand the rights of property.

    Very interesting — because I was, before reading this passage, about to mention Bowles and Gintis’s Democracy and Capitalism, published in 1986, which makes exactly this distinction between personal rights and property rights, seeing them as clashing aspects of liberalism (see chap.2). They do talk about Madsion a bit (been a long time since I read the bk, but am looking at my copy now), but I don’t think (though I cd be wrong) they quote that passage about “the two cardinal objects of Government” that Livingston quotes. Would have fit quite neatly into their argument, obviously…

  8. Couple of thoughts re markets:
    Agree w J.L. that there have been past circumstances in which markets have been liberating, but also agree w/ Andrew H. that “The Market” has been used as a sledgehammer, as he put it, for the power of the one percent.

    Btw, I’m not sure what happened to the tradition of ‘market socialism’. No doubt it’s still discussed and debated in technical and academic journals and by scholars of various sorts, but my sense is that it used to be a focus of more interest on the Left (and among liberals, in the U.S. sense of that word) than it is now. I could be wrong about that, I suppose. Maybe (?) it’s that the depredations of ‘neoliberalism’ made it seem sort of irrelevant (or even less relevant than before).

    I could ramble on about other matters but I think I’d betters stop here (for now, at any rate).

  9. Just to toss a rock into the pond…

    I just got back from the opening session of a “Conservative / Progressive Summit” I was invited to take part in. The organizers’ use of “progressive” in place of “liberal” is an interesting terminological choice, but a confusing one. (It’s not new this year; this is the 5th year of the summit.)

    At one point during the opening session, the moderator referred to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as a “progressive.” That seemed to me to be a very strange characterization — though maybe I’m being too narrow in my view of ASJ — but I suppose it’s suitable enough if people are using the term “progressive” and “liberal” interchangeably. I’m not suggesting people on this thread do that, or that you would. But it does seem to me that “liberal,” both for us specialists and for the broader “educated public” or “general reader,” is the most dizzyingly protean of all the terms people might use to characterize political discourse or basic dispositions or competing visions of the social order — and that’s just taking its meaning at one moment in time. It is difficult — but crucial — to use such a capacious word with precision. And it was interesting to hear the meaning of “liberal” and “liberalism” contested not among a group of specialist scholars within our discipline (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but in a place — a physical space, and a social situation — where specialists and non-specialists meet. I suppose that will be the order of things for pretty much the whole weekend, which is both exhilarating and exhausting to think about.

    • On this front, see Ruth Abbey, “Is Liberalism Now an Essentially Contested Concept?” (2005). The notion of liberalism as an essentially contested concept — an idea which everyone agrees has coherence, but for which no one element is present in every single definition — seems compelling to me. Republicanism may be another such concept. On a panel we were both on in 2014, Michael Kazin argued that Progressivism (big-P version, from the Progressive Era) was an essentially contested concept, but I disagree with him there; there’s no Progressive from the time who would deny that, say, Jane Addams was a Progressive, but there’s no one figure in the liberal tradition who appeals to every liberal, not even Locke (Michael Sandel’s version of liberalism, for instance, wouldn’t include Locke).

  10. These comments, for which thanks, center on the periodization of liberalism, a crucial question for intellectual historians if ever there was one. The new distinction between progressive and liberal, as per Burnett’s remarks, is deeply rooted, I think, in the social-democratic possibilities and programs of the early 20th moment we call the Progressive Era, as per Young’s remarks. That’s why TR remains such an iconic figure for, well, for everybody–from John Kerry to John McCain. As I read that book, Bowles and Gintis were writing a gloss on Rawls, trying to flesh (flush?) out the contaminants of the original condition. So yeah, Louis is onto something important in connecting these figures–I suppose we all are because if we think liberty and equality must go together, we’re driven back to the formative moments. Rawls is perhaps as significant as TR, or, as I designate his heirs, FDR, LBJ, and MLK, because he’s the intellectual epitome of liberalism toward the end of the 20th century–when Irving Kristol, having done his homework, correctly diagnosed liberalism as social democracy in disguise. I’m not giving up on the continuities I cite in my conversation with Hartman. Indeed I would suggest that if we think of liberalism as attitudes toward markets, and periodize it accordingly, we might free ourselves of the jargon that Lacy has loosed upon us. But thanks, anyway, Tim.

  11. “socialism (…) can be liberal and democratic, or statist and authoritarian. (…) Absent a liberal insistence on the supremacy of civil society over the state—the sovereignty of the people—socialism will devolve into command economies and authoritarian regimes”

    This reminds me of some of EP Thompson’s remarks from around his break with the British Communist Party. I wonder if Livingston would consider Thompson a figure who combined commitment to socialism and what he calls liberalism. That aside, I think this makes sense and it seems to amount to saying the left needs a commitment to both distributive justice and civil rights/civil liberties. Lose either and we see significant injustices. Socialism and liberalism, or some variety of barbarism.

    What I don’t understand is the link to markets in all of this. “socialism cannot survive without markets” sounds like its being used as a synonym for or has the view that socialism requires liberalism or injustice results. This is a persistent disconnect for me in my reading of Livingston’s work. That could well be a failing on my part. I don’t understand his use of the terms markets, capitalism, and socialism. In various places he’s seemed to suggest that elements of each are present in all societies, a view I associate with the Althusserian tradition in marxism, where any given society will contain aspects of a variety of modes of production, in varying proportions and in varying positions of influence on the society. I’d be interested in a straight forward statement of that theoretical view, in relation to theoretical alternatives, as I think that differences on this theoretical backdrop (I think for Livingston it’s a worked out theory and for a lot of others, myself included, we have less a theory than we have a set of not fully theorized intellectual intuitions on these matters).

    • Typo correction, sorry:
      ““socialism cannot survive without markets” sounds like its being used as a synonym for or has the view that socialism requires liberalism or injustice results”
      should read
      ““socialism cannot survive without markets” sounds like its being used as a synonym for or has some important link to the view that socialism requires liberalism or injustice results.”
      I meant to say I don’t see the link.

    • This is an excellent reminder of forgotten antecedents, for which thanks. Second graf, perfect agreement: Bernstein redux.

  12. Re Nate’s comment:

    Acknowledging by way of preface that there aren’t universally agreed-on definitions of the key terms in this discussion, my response would be (and I don’t know whether J. Livingston would agree or not):

    I don’t think there’s any necessary connection, at least not in theory, between democratic (or liberal) socialism and markets. There are non-authoritarian socialist models that don’t rely on command or markets, of which Hahnel and Albert’s ‘participatory economics’ (which I know little about in detail) is perhaps the best known.

    However, I’m not aware of examples of democratic socialist polities/societies/economies (or ones which we agree that the label ‘democratic socialist’ would fit) that have not relied at least to some extent on market mechanisms in practice. Maybe there are such examples, but I’m not aware of any.

    Last note: there’s no necessary connection between market mechanisms, on the one hand, and ownership on the other. You can have an economy that makes use of market mechanisms and price signals in which the major means of production are not owned or controlled by a relatively small class of wealthy people but in which ownership is arranged v. differently. ‘Market socialist’ models, to the limited extent I’m familiar with them, begin with this fundamental distinction between markets and ownership. (Of course, conservatism in the contemp. U.S. sense, or neoliberalism for that matter, blurs this distinction by using the misleading if not completely empty phrase “free markets” as a synonym for contemp. capitalism, thereby implying — incorrectly — that markets, in order to work, require private ownership.)

  13. Well I guess my work is cut out for me. If I understand these comments correctly, my task is twofold: (1) To explain how and why markets underwrite modernity and the very idea of democracy, which, as I see them, are pretty much the same thing–you can’t have one without the other. (2) To explain how and why markets underwrite that version of modernity we call socialism–or not. Capitalism requires markets, of course. Why does socialism also need them as economic means to the political end of democracy?

  14. There are a handful of authors whose works I believe central to the second question (apart from the couple of well-known volumes that treat the question of ‘market socialism’), among the foremost I would include Jon Elster, G.A. Cohen, Michael Harrington, David Schweickart, Adam Przeworski, Diane Elson, and Anwar Shaikh.

  15. It’s interesting that Elster and Cohen crop up here, Przeworski as well, although i wouldn’t group them. P is so much more useful than E and C that we’re talking apples and oranges–P, for example, insists on “performativiity” rather than sociological criteria as the measure of class or class consciousness. The missing figures, as always, are the Eastern European economists from Kalecki and Lange to Brus and Selucky, the figures we now need to grapple with the economic theory of the neoliberal state.

  16. The names I cited weren’t intended to represent a common perspective or similar take on markets and socialism, so I believe we can and should be able to eat both apples and oranges. As for the differences between P and C and E, the former is reluctant to address normative questions in detail and so it is true that his relevance differs in fundamental ways from the latter two. I assumed people who’ve been interested in this (or these) question(s) were already familiar with Kalecki, Lange, et al. (e.g., ‘Alec’ Nove), but maybe I shouldn’t have assumed that (it may be a function of my age). Having written my MA thesis on Solidarity in Poland (well, that’s a big part of it), I’ve long appreciated the Polish economists in particular. Beyond the “economic theory of the neoliberal state,” my own view on markets have been deeply affected by Cohen’s last chapter. “The future of a disillusion,” in Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (CUP, 1995) which should be, I dare say, necessary reading on the Left, whatever one’s precise or intuitive views on the subject.

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