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.

The pattern is well-known, and Holmes has a lot of fun with it. A modern critic will typically assert that liberalism has brought civilisation to its knees, and that Western society faces a total and debilitating crisis as a result of materialism, scientism, individualism and rationalism. Nothing less than the abandonment of Enlightenment thought and the wholesale reorientation of politics around constitutive norms of community can save us, they say. Asked, however, for their political programme, they engage in furious back-pedalling. It turns out that our anti-liberals actually want to keep medical science, the rule of law, public libraries, religious toleration, Amnesty International, frequent-flyer programmes, and similar fruits of the Enlightenment. They are certainly not urging religious homogeneity, ethnic cleansing, patriarchal authority and all the other impedimenta of actually existing communitarianism. ‘How could anyone have thought we wanted that?’ they ask in hurt tones. They would just like a little bit more respect for the flag, a tightening of the laws against pornography, and perhaps a greater willingness to work on the part of those on welfare. Then, having reassured us with this modest incrementalism, they return to the philosophical fray, charging liberalism with the most frightful misconception of the ontology of man and society, etc.

What, then, is the point of Holmes’s invocation of the ghastly spectre of Maistre? We can accept his assurance that it is not guilt by association. On the contrary, he criticises flabby anti-liberals for not having the courage of the convictions that their heritage intimates. Their anodyne slogans contrast unfavourably with the ‘bold and uncompromising’ arguments of Schmitt and Maistre, many of which, Holmes says, ‘strike me as valid or, at least, difficult to refute’. The cardinal sin, however, of the modern anti-liberals is to have ‘absorbed and reproduced rhetoric whose history and implications they have failed to ponder’. Ironically, theorists like MacIntyre and Sandel ‘talk endlessly about rootedness and tradition, lamenting the deep lack of historical consciousness characteristic of modern times’. But they recklessly disregard their own ‘unsavoury precursors’, and the traditions of intolerance, reaction and irrationalism that the language of community unwittingly evokes.

It’s always good to see someone setting about the communitarians, but I find this kind of critique a little embarrassing. Maistre and Schmitt espouse extreme positions, but it doesn’t follow that they represent the logical extreme of the evidently more moderate positions adopted by modern communitarians, or that their lurid views are what the latter would hold if only they were consistent. Holmes doesn’t actually say this. But he does call the modern positions ‘compromised’ as well as ‘mollified’, and he criticises MacIntyre et al for making ‘no clarifying effort to explain their differences from fascist philosophers whose rhetoric is often indistinguishable from their own’. I don’t see why this should be their responsibility, any more than it is a liberal’s job to distinguish his own arguments from those of Herbert Spencer, say, or Ayn Rand.

It would be different if Maistre and Schmitt represented major landmarks or points of reference for anti-liberal thought. Holmes’s six anti-liberals were selected because, among other reasons, they were ‘prominent in American debates, widely influential, and representative of broader trends’. But this is nonsense in the case of Maistre. He is barely known in America, let alone studied or appealed to; and even in Europe he is regarded, according to Isaiah Berlin (one of the few recent writers to have paid any attention to him), as ‘interesting rather than important’. Schmitt is a little more in vogue, but his importance as a representative of anti-liberal thought pales in comparison with that of his fellow Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger. Holmes mentions Heidegger early on in the book – in connection with the critique of liberal materialism and instrumental rationality – but apparently does not think he warrants a chapter to himself.

There are others, too, who might plausibly have been included. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Burke is left more or less completely out of the discussion, as is Herder (whose emphasis on the particularity of each nation, culture and language surely has more to do with the modern emphasis on community than the fascism of Schmitt or the ultramontanism of Maistre). This is to say nothing of Nietzsche and Freud, whose work has done more perhaps than any of the others’ to shake the coherence and conscious self-certainty of the modern liberal self.

The omission of Marx and Lenin is a different matter. Holmes is quite explicit about the need to establish a distinct category of ‘non-Marxist anti-liberalism’ and I think he is right about that. Almost all of his anti-liberals regard Marxism as a kind of liberalism, or at any rate trace the two traditions to a single root. Both Marxism and liberalism are theories of modernity, whereas it is a distinguishing characteristic of those on Holmes’s list (as well as the alternatives I have suggested) that they are utterly opposed to the Enlightenment and all its scientistic fruits. Marx may not be charged fairly with the sin of individualism (he is as vehement in his condemnation of liberal atomism as any of the communitarians), but he is as guilty, if not more guilty, of materialism, atheism, rationalism, optimism and the general subversion of authority.

When one turns to our contemporaries, Holmes’s selection becomes odder still. Leo Strauss makes sense (and the chapter devoted to his work is the best in the book), as perhaps does MacIntyre. But Christopher Lasch and Roberto Unger? The inclusion of the former is perhaps justified because Holmes needed an exemplar for the anti-science side of this tradition. Unger has had a certain prominence in the Critical Legal Studies movement, but Holmes has to spend an inordinate amount of time tracing the contortions of his intellectual identity switches – sometimes a communitarian, sometimes a countercultural radical, sometimes anti-liberal, sometimes hyperliberal, often both – with very little pay-off for Holmes’s overall anatomy.

This is a pity, for there are other 20th-century thinkers whose thought has been incomparably more important in poisoning the atmosphere against liberalism. Michael Oakeshott is one, Hannah Arendt another. The latter omission is particularly serious as it signals the lack of any consideration of the civic republican dimension of the modern movement against liberalism. True, a lot of what Holmes says in defence of liberalism, later in the book, is relevant to republicanism. He points out that, historically, civic virtue has often meant martial virtue, and notes that liberal thinkers neglected or denigrated this for a reason. They were as much concerned about war as political economists were about famine. Like the economists, they sought to develop theories in which patriotic militarism would give way to ideals of peace, toleration and commerce.

Part II of the Anatomy is called ‘Misunderstanding the Liberal Past’ and consists of a polemical defence of liberal political theory against the calumnies of its opponents. Holmes says here that the term ‘liberal’ should be used ‘not to refer to a clearly defined or logically consistent doctrine, but as shorthand for the political stance adopted by a select group of modern liberal theorists: Spinoza, Milton, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire, Beccaria, Blackstone, Smith, Kant, Madison, Bentham and John Stuart Mill’. It’s odd that there are no modern theorists on the home team – no Rawls, no Popper, no Raymond Aron – particularly since it’s only recently that ‘liberal’ became a term of self-identification in political theory. Not only that, but all of Holmes’s anti-liberals (except Maistre) are 20th-century thinkers, who take themselves to be attacking a modern spirit of theorising about society which may have been inspired by, but is certainly not identical with, the theories devised by Milton, Locke, Montesquieu etc, two or three hundred years earlier.

Still more worrying is Holmes’s definition of liberalism as primarily a ‘political stance’, rather than a set of philosophical positions. His argument for the defence is largely that ‘anti-liberals distort liberal texts by reading them apolitically, by wresting pamphlets and treatises from their original historical contexts, disregarding their political and polemical aims’. Sometimes this works. Consider the allegation that liberals think of values as merely subjective preferences. (As a proposition to be attributed to Locke or Kant this is preposterous.) When liberal writers say things that give a subjectivist impression, their aim is usually to emphasise the arbitrariness of the standards which those in authority were using at the time to restrict individual liberty. Thus Milton complained about censors condemning ‘any subject that was not to their palat’, and Spinoza condemned the religious bigot for trying ‘to make the rest of the world live according to his fancy’. Their point was not that all value statements are matters of taste or whim; the aim was to ‘deflate the moral imperialism’ that tyranny was invoking.

But though it sometimes works, Holmes’s defence often distorts the liberal position. Consider the account he gives of the classic doctrines of the state of nature, individual rights and the social contract – doctrines that were always red rags, philosophically, to the anti-liberal bull. According to Holmes, it is a mistake to respond, for example, to Locke’s use of these ideas as though they were intended seriously to express philosophical truths about human nature or the relation between man and society. Locke invented them (or at any rate used them) purely to put defenders of contemporary monarchy and other forms of inherited privilege on the defensive. It was a way of volleying back the burden of proof in what was essentially a political argument. Locke knew full well that man was a social animal and that all rights were products of society. Natural rights and the social contract, Holmes says, were just strategies to embarrass Robert Filmer and the later Stuarts’ Anglican apologists. They were never intended to convey a commitment to individualism or atomism.

This is a curious and quite implausible ‘defence’. For one thing, why would Locke’s audience have taken any notice of these devices – how could they have worked even as political rhetoric – if thinkers like Locke had not been able to make them plausible on their own philosophical terms? And why should we – confronted three hundred years later with quite different social and political problems – be interested except for antiquarian reasons in making a study of these strategies?

The fact is that the anti-liberals are right. Locke and his philosophical comrades-in-arms were atomists (and, liberals should start saying, none the worse for that). Though they acknowledged that men lived in society, they held a firm moral belief that the basis of each individual’s value and the respect due to him could be understood without reference to his relations or connectedness with other human beings. For Locke, individual rights were a matter of each person’s being the workmanship and property of God, which meant that ‘we were made to last during His not one anothers pleasure.’ Each was responsible for himself and his destiny in a way that no given social relation could mediate, and this was the basis of the requirement of individual consent to be governed, which, when elaborated across a whole society, added up to a theory of the social contract. No doubt people have been governed since time immemorial against their will or in spite of it. But Locke’s radical position was that such arrangements, however stable and efficient they might seem, did violence to the status of the individual as God’s property, by treating him as though his own responsibility for himself did not matter. This is a radical doctrine whose significance goes far beyond the publication of an Exclusionist pamphlet. Defenders of traditional authority, from Filmer to Maistre, were right to tremble in rage and fear at its propagation.

Whether anything like the Lockean view can work once God is removed from the picture is another question. But there is no doubt that liberal philosophers have tried to make it work: that is, they continue to organise entire social and political theories around the idea that individual humans are, in Rawls’s phrase, ‘self-authenticating sources of valid claims’ rather than beings whose aims and interests count for something only by virtue of being validated by larger social structures. It is hard to see this philosophical enterprise as a mere tactic to bolster political efforts on behalf of, say, free speech or the rule of law. On the contrary, liberals often infuriate their opponents by taking the direction of the philosophical argument seriously: they work out which political positions to favour by referring back to their deeper philosophical views about the nature of man, society and morality, rather than (as Holmes alleges) the other way round.

The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism is an opportunity missed. For one thing, ‘non-Marxist anti-liberalism’ represents a distinct category of political thought, and I would like to have had an anatomy of its most important and influential thinkers, not just the miscellaneous rag-bag that Holmes has given us. I could have wished, too, that he had used his formidable talents to defend liberal philosophy, not just liberal politics, against this brand of opponent. For in the passages where he really does go to bat for liberalism (as opposed to diluting the views he claims to be defending), the results are powerful and packed with insight.

He is absolutely right, for example, about the public/private distinction. It has always amazed me when people say that liberals are committed to ‘an inviolable zone or private sphere – something like a medieval manor – into which governmental authorities dare not intrude’, no matter what violence or exploitation takes place there. Feminists claim liberals believe this about the family; socialists claim they believe it about the work-place or the market. In fact, however, classic liberals did not even believe it about churches. As Holmes points out, they consistently maintained that individuals can appeal to the law wherever they find themselves victimised by force or fraud.

Liberals are also accused of denigrating the public realm, of subordinating it to the private or to civil society. But this, too, is nonsense. Liberals may not believe (as, say, Hannah Arendt believed) that political activity is worthwhile as an end in itself, like sport or drama, but even Locke, who was less concerned about participation than most liberals, insisted that the legislature is the basis on which ‘the Members of a Commonwealth are united, and combined together into one coherent living Body. This is the Soul that gives Form, Life, and Unity to the Commonwealth: From hence the several Members have their mutual Influence, Sympathy, and Connexion.’ For him, the public realm is something that free and equal individuals have created by consent for their common purposes; and the primary cause for revolution in Locke’s system is that kings or ministers have attempted to subvert public institutions for their own private ends.

Or consider Kant’s insistence on the importance of public reason: ‘The public use of man’s reason must always be free ... the private use of reason may quite often be very narrowly restricted’ – in the work-place or the office, for example – ‘without hindrance to the process of enlightenment.’ This is exactly the opposite of what liberals are supposed by their enemies to believe.

Holmes never goes very much beyond simply pointing this out: opponents say liberals don’t believe in the public sphere, but in fact they do. What one misses is any sense that the liberal commitment to public reason is built on epistemological foundations. It is not just a political position, but a philosophical view about what it is to know, to feel, to justify and to understand. No one denies after all that the anti-liberals have their epistemology – a pessimistic one, anti-empirical and anti-rationalistic. We are not, they say, the sort of creatures that can be counted on to figure things out for ourselves. The defensive case in The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism would have been much more compelling had Holmes paid tribute to the classic liberals’ willingness to take on their opponents on this high philosophical ground as well as on the mundane field of politics.