Melancholy Liberalism

Adam Kirsch in City Journal:

Was John C. Calhoun a liberal? The question sounds like a joke, or a provocation. Surely Calhoun, the defender of slavery and theorist of nullification, must be counted as a reactionary, an enemy of both liberty and progress. Yet the uncomfortable fact remains that Calhoun regarded himself, and was regarded by his fellow white Southerners, as a champion of liberty. In a famous incident at a political banquet in 1830, President Andrew Jackson offered a toast to “Our federal Union, it must be preserved”—to which Calhoun, his vice president, pointedly responded with a toast to “the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear.” The liberty he meant was, of course, the freedom of Southern whites to own slaves; and he was devoted to this liberty to the point of advocating secession if it were threatened by the federal government. If liberalism is the political philosophy that takes liberty as its primary value, doesn’t that mean that Calhoun was a liberal par excellence?

This dilemma is posed in two recent books about liberalism, which are otherwise diametrically opposed in their ideological and methodological approaches. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by the distinguished British journalist Edmund Fawcett, is an accessible account of major liberal politicians and thinkers of the last two centuries, written from a position of unillusioned but profound solidarity with the liberal tradition. On the other hand, as its title suggests, Liberalism: A Counter-History, by the Italian political theorist Domenico Losurdo, takes a debunking approach to that tradition. Losurdo argues that liberalism has never been interested in true, universal liberation but was instead an ideology by which privileged elites justified and celebrated their domination over workers, slaves, and conquered native peoples.

Both these writers recognize Calhoun as an important test case of the limits of liberalism—and still more, of its current moral claims. After all, if an out-and-out white supremacist and celebrator of slavery like Calhoun was a liberal in good standing, the name “liberal” can hardly function as an honorific.

More here.