Lenin for today: on liberty, bourgeois democracy and colonialism

I have come across a magnificent piece by Domenico Losurdo, called ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’. Here Losurdo deploys Lenin’s critique of colonialism and Western’ democracy’ to devastating effect. Let me pick out some of the more salient points.

To begin with, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.) In other words, liberal ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are inseparable from oppression and dispossession; one relies on the other to function.

Losurdo moves on to consider a paradox in the heart of today’s beacon of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’: liberal democracy developed in the white community in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. ‘For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the United States’ life, slave-owners held the presidency, and they were the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’. Indeed, one cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. As a further example, during the so-called ‘Progressive Age’, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret vote, primaries, referenda etc. They all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to deprive indigenous people of their residual lands and assimilate them. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the USA (‘rogue’ was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an ‘R’ to signify their status): once declared a ‘rogue’ or ‘pariah’ state, the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ (Clinton) and ‘model for the world’ (Bush) can crush these ‘barbarians’ (Mill) in order to bolster ‘freedom and democracy’.

One might also compare Israel, suggests Losurdo, supposedly the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East, where ‘freedom of expression and association’ exist. But that can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: ‘government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily’.

And then in a new twist, when fading colonial powers are losing their grip, they suddenly happen upon self-determination for valuable sections of the former colony (which have themselves been ethnically, culturally and religiously engineered). Thus, when England finally had to give Hong Kong back to China, the last governer, Chris Patten, ‘had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thereby remaining within the orbit of the British Empire’. One might say the same about claims for Tibet’s independence.

Finally, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for ‘human rights’, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ amount? Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’, where ‘philanthropy’ is synomous with ‘human rights’ and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of ‘human rights’.

Many of these details are reasonably well-known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they don’t live up to their ideals. But Losurdo, developing Lenin, has a much sharper point. The very possibility of bourgeois ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority – and vice versa.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Lenin for today: on liberty, bourgeois democracy and colonialism

  1. “..in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.)”

    One of the paradoxes of empire was that Indian students studying PPE at Oxford returning home for the Summer vac could have their copies of ‘On Liberty’ confiscated by Indian customs official because it was on the list of seditious literature. Anyway, this is what I have been led to believe. I can’t give you a source for the story. I have a vague memory that it was one told by Bertrand Russell (or perhaps it was Lord Brockway): I can’t remember.

    The point is that, your quote gives a clue as to the thinking behind such a ban.

    I hadn’t realised this before because I must confess that I have never read ‘On Liberty’. It just goes to show that there is no substitute for reading the original texts, time consuming as that might be.

  2. “Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’”

    Rhodes was making a reference to work of the social reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912).

    Hill developed a practical scheme for the housing for poorer people. This involved combing improving physical conditions (refurbishment, regular maintenance and cleaning) with ‘moral’ measure (strict rent collection and what is now called ‘counselling’ i.e. telling poor people how to live their lives) backed up by the threat of eviction.

    These moral measures were implemented through a undeviating system of weekly visits.

    Hill’s first project was financed by John Ruskin in 1864. The money was not to be repaid as a capital sum but Ruskin would receive a guaranteed five per cent return.

    “Once the five per cent return was achieved, any surplus could be spent by the tenants on common projects (with guidance by Octavia Hill). As a result money could be used to develop a playground, and to put on classes or other projects (Darley 2004). .. Significantly, because her ‘method’ both provided a return and could be emulated, others also took an interest. By 1874 she had 15 housing schemes with around 3000 tenants.”

    http://www.infed.org/thinkers/octavia_hill.htm

    Hence the slogan “Philanthropy and Five Percent”

    You will be familiar with Cecil Rhodes’s interest in the social question from Lenin.
    “I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

    Imperialism VI. Division of the world among the great powers

    All we need now is a link between Lenin and Octavia Hill

  3. Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.