By the Roots

Jeremy Waldron

  • The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism by Stephen Holmes
    Harvard, 330 pp, £23.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 674 03180 6

‘The day will come, and perhaps it is not far off, when John Locke will be universally placed among those writers who have perpetrated the most evil among men.’ If Locke has a competitor in this, it is David Hume, ‘the most culpable of these fatal writers who will not cease to damn the [18th] century in the eyes of posterity, the one who has used the most talent with the most composure to produce the most evil.’ Europe is in chaos because intellectuals like these have forgotten their place: ‘They detest without exception every distinction they themselves do not enjoy; they find fault in every authority; if they are allowed, they will attack everything, even God, because he is master. They should be hung like housebreakers.’

Thus Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821), Savoyard philosopher, counter-revolutionary, ultramontane Catholic and the first of six exemplars of anti-liberal sentiment, past and present, chosen by Stephen Holmes for dissection in his Anatomy. The others are Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch and Roberto Unger.

To choose Maistre as one’s point of departure is to set a provocative, not to say lurid tone. There are occasions when he can sound as reasonable in his critique of the Revolution or the Enlightenment as, say, Burke or Herder. He derided individual reason, he repudiated abstractions like ‘human nature’ (‘During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian; but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere’), he doubted whether society could hold itself together without some suitable combination of Pope, throne and hangman, and he had profound reservations about the paper-chase of contemporary constitutionalism: ‘Houses of cards are being built both in and outside Europe.’

Views like these, common enough at the end of the 18th century, are flavoured in Maistre’s case, however, by a fanatical and bloodthirsty metaphysics that is perhaps better understood under the auspices of psychiatry than philosophy. Though like other reactionaries he regarded the French Revolution as a blasphemous insurrection against the principle of earthly authority, he consoled himself with the thought that at least Robespierre and his butchers were performing a God-appointed task – punishing not only the original revolutionaries and those who encouraged and indulged them, but also, in a grim tribute to the principle of vicarious guilt, random members of the French citizenry, all of whom were implicated in the national crime of regicide. Indeed, the indiscriminate Terror served that purpose far more efficiently than traditional methods: ‘Would the sacred sword of justice have fallen as relentlessly as Robespierre’s guillotine? Would all the executioners of the kingdom and every artillery horse have been summoned to Paris to quarter men? Would lead and tar have been melted in vast boilers to sprinkle on limbs torn by red-hot tongs?’ Even if some genuine innocents went to the scaffold, who should quibble? Innocents die every day, while ‘the right innocently to spill innocent blood is regarded as most honourable by the whole of humanity.’ Violent death is the law of nature: ‘The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite.’

Holmes’s claim, as far as I understand it, is that rantings like these – which he calls ‘bold’ and ‘brilliant’ – form part of the intellectual ancestry and thus the heritage of modern communitarianism. He doesn’t agree with them, of course; his chapters have helpful sections entitled ‘A Rebuttal’ and ‘Defects in the Argument’. But these are thoughts that are supposed to have inspired and moulded the ‘anti-liberal tradition’ to which Holmes, as a defender of liberalism, wants to respond.

The second of his anti-liberals is Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), a Nazi jurist and political theorist, of whom the best that could be said is what he said himself to his interrogators at Nuremberg: ‘I am an intellectual adventurer.’ He is in the Anatomy presumably to remind us that when modern anti-liberals like Alasdair MacIntyre or Michael Sandel talk of the rootlessness of the liberal individual and his lack of ‘constitutive attachments’, they are using language redolent of earlier attacks on ‘rootless’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews.

Holmes insists he is not saying that late-20th-century communitarians are in danger of turning us or themselves into fascists, anti-semites or bloodthirsty ultramontanists. ‘I am not worried about the practical consequences of their ideas,’ he says. ‘They benefit from historical circumstances that make them politically harmless.’ Indeed, one of his themes is a contrast between ‘hard’ anti-liberals like Maistre and Schmitt and more recent writers whose anti-liberalism, though robust and ambitious in its philosophical expression, is softened or ‘diluted’ in its political output.

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