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Painting classical liberalism as inherently racist is a revisionist smear

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Imraan Buccus recently wrote that the ‘history of liberalism is entwined with racism’. This is an absurd piece of historical revisionism that tries to paint white, English-speaking liberals as quintessentially racist, and appropriate anti-racist ideas to the radical left.

“The history of liberalism is entwined with racism,” wrote Imraan Buccus in these pages, drawing parallels between Hitler and the liberal tradition.

One should probably dismiss such a crude attempt at reductio ad Hitlerum out of hand, but lest anyone think there might be a grain of truth in this piece of historical revisionism, I will spend some time critiquing it.

“‘Classical liberalism’, to put it clearly, was racism,” he asserts, aiming his venom not only at modern apartheid apologists, but also at “a liberal and often English-speaking version of white denialism”, which he believes can be found at classical liberal think tanks like the Institute for Race Relations.

This is patently absurd. Buccus confuses the early development of liberal thought in an era that was deeply racist with the belief that those liberal principles actually supported racism then, and still do so now. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Liberal thought emerged in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th to 19th centuries. Racism and slavery, however, had been ingrained in societies across the globe since time immemorial. They were not products of the Enlightenment or of liberalism. They were not even products of pre-Enlightenment Europe.

Africans themselves engaged in slavery long before the Atlantic slave trade began. Many Africans became wealthy not only by selling other Africans into slavery, but also by expropriating their properties. Taking conquered peoples into slavery was as routine in Africa as it was everywhere else in the world.

North Africans took slaves in England. There were white, British and Irish slaves in America in the 18th century. The Ottomans took Christian slaves for centuries. Slavery was common in China, Japan, Korea and South-East Asia. Slavery dates back to the very first civilisations, such as the Sumerians in Mesopotamia.

Although slavery is technically illegal everywhere in the world now, the practice persists in places like West Africa, India, Myanmar and the Middle East, without needing any help from white racists.

Buccus argues that early pioneers of liberal thought, such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, were racists and slavers. Of course, they were a product of their age, in which slavery was normal, not only in Europe, but around the world.

It is true that Locke was invested in the slave trade. However, his writings did not endorse slavery. Let me quote academic research on exactly this point:

Locke owned stock in slave trading companies and was secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, where slavery was constitutionally permitted. He had two notions of slavery: legitimate slavery was captivity with forced labor imposed by the just winning side in a war; illegitimate slavery was an authoritarian deprivation of natural rights. Locke did not try to justify either black slavery or the oppression of Amerindians. In The Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued against the advocates of absolute monarchy. The arguments for absolute monarchy and colonial slavery turn out to be the same. So in arguing against the one, Locke could not help but argue against the other. Examining the natural rights tradition to which Locke’s work belongs confirms this. Locke could have defended colonial slavery by building on popular ideas of his colleagues and predecessors, but there is no textual evidence that he did that or that he advocated seizing Indian agricultural land.

“To put it clearly, classical liberalism, as a historical reality, meant rights for whites and genocide, slavery and colonisation for everyone else,” Buccus writes. But the idea that Locke’s writing somehow supported or advanced racism and slavery, instead of laying the intellectual foundations against them, is simply wrong. In fact, Locke’s philosophy contradicted his own actions. At worst, he could be accused of hypocrisy.

(As an aside, the adjective “classical” is used to distinguish a philosophy premised on economic liberalism and individual liberty from the more left-wing social liberalism that Americans would call simply “liberal”.)

John Stuart Mill explicitly argued against slavery and against the idea that race determined the nature of human beings. Again, we go to the academic literature:

It is shown that Mill – although he did indulge himself in the discourse based on race, geography or climate to a minor extent – made strenuous efforts to discredit the deterministic implications of racial theories and to promote the idea that human effort and education could alter beyond recognition what were supposed to be the racially inherited characteristics of various human groups.

Immanuel Kant really was racist, and expressed many deeply offensive prejudices about race in his anthropological studies. His place in the classical liberal pantheon, however, is a point of considerable dispute. Some of his views were substantially liberal, but many were distinctly illiberal. His ideas about social order and duty to the state are in no way liberal. It is in Kant that one can make the best argument for the idea that liberalism and racism coexisted in a single person’s philosophy.

However, one cannot attribute all of Kant’s ideas to classical liberalism. He also influenced Marxism and critical theory, yet neither of those philosophies can take the blame for everything Kant wrote.

That some early liberal philosophers, living in a racist age, held ideas about race that conflicted with their political philosophy does not change the fact that liberal principles inherently preclude racism.

A core tenet of the liberal school of thought is that individuals are born equal, are free to act, within the law, as they see fit, and ought to be judged according to their own thoughts and deeds. This anti-collectivist conception of liberty logically precludes the group categorisations that are essential to racism or nationalism.

Liberal ideas took time to develop into a more coherent political philosophy. Societies, in turn, took time to adopt these ideas into their political organisation. That illiberal features of society, or authoritarian tendencies in government, remained while liberalism began to spread is not the fault of liberal ideas.

Buccus provides no source for his claim that only tiny minorities of liberals opposed slavery. That’s because he cannot. The movement to abolish slavery began in Britain and France, in the 18th century, as a direct consequence of the evolution of Enlightenment ideas and liberal thought. In this respect, the liberal democracies of Europe were far ahead of their slave-owning peers in the rest of the world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, which explicitly grants equal rights to all and prohibits slavery, is a direct descendant of the early liberal manifestos such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789.

Liberals were also at the forefront of other human rights struggles, such as the movements for the universal franchise, gender equality and gay rights.

The Liberal Party of South Africa was founded in 1953 by Alan Paton. It was multiracial and opposed to apartheid right from the start. Does Buccus propose to call Alan Paton or the old Liberal Party racist?

During the apartheid years, the only outspoken critic of the regime inside Parliament was its lone liberal member, Helen Suzman. Was she, too, a racist?

If so, why did the racist establishment routinely deride liberals? Why, if liberalism was racism, as Buccus claims, would liberals oppose the racial discrimination of apartheid?

Buccus expresses the laughable view that Hitler “was inspired by liberal ideas and figures”. Everything about Hitler’s totalitarian, nationalist, collectivist, dehumanising and genocidal approach to government contradicts the liberal ethos of individual liberty, the consent of the governed, and equality before the law.

Everything he did contradicts the liberal principles of peace, democracy, tolerance, limited government, individual civil and human rights, gender and racial equality, free markets and trade, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

Assuming Buccus is neither monumentally stupid nor historically illiterate, one can only conclude that he intends a heinous smear by suggesting that Hitler either admired, or was admired by, liberals.

In trying to re-appropriate non-racialism for the radical left, he runs headlong into the preposterous claim that the Black Consciousness movement was non-racial. It explicitly defines itself by reference to race and racial solidarity! How can one possibly describe it as non-racial?

“The new liberal zealots are trying to appropriate non-racialism from its radical roots in order to misuse the concept to oppose attempts at anti-racism,” Buccus writes. Yet the term “non-racialism” not only rejects racism and racialism. It also, as an ideology, positively affirms liberal democratic ideals.

His suggestion that one can support non-racialism but oppose attempts at anti-racism makes no sense, unless one assumes that by anti-racism he means policies aimed at racial redresses such as affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Whatever their good intentions, these policies are explicitly racial in nature. They are not the same thing as anti-racism. It is entirely defensible to oppose racial redress on purely anti-racist grounds.

One might wish to argue whether one ought to oppose racial redress policies, but it is certainly not grounds to declare classical liberalism to be racist.

It is worth conceding that some of those who identify as classical liberals today might indeed be racist, but that is not because classical liberal principles are racist. This is a consequence of the fact that those people, who used to benefit from racial policies that favoured white people, now profess to prefer non-racism to racial policies that favour black people and disadvantage them.

Tarring all classical liberals with that brush, however, is not justified. This phenomenon cannot reflect negatively on classical liberal principles, any more than it reflects negatively on the African National Congress that the New National Party, the successor to the architect of apartheid, ended up merging with it.

The history of liberalism, as theory and as a practice, coexisted with racism, but was never “deeply enmeshed” with it, as Buccus argues. It certainly never advocated, justified, supported or condoned racism, genocide or slavery.

On the contrary, its fundamental philosophical principles always professed that people by nature are equal, have inherent natural rights that include the right to life, liberty and property, and that individual rights trump group identity. Racism, racial discrimination, slavery and indeed genocide inherently contradict all these liberal principles.

Buccus does not present historical fact, as he claims, but a crude attempt at historical revisionism that appears to be designed to defame and discredit the classical liberal movement as being associated with the radical, racist right.

What his motives might be one can only speculate, but the entire basis of his argument is riddled with flaws, inventions and absurdities. His attack on classical liberals and its modern supporters as racist simply cannot be sustained, and should be rejected out of hand. DM

Full disclosure: the author recently became a member of the Institute for Race Relations, and was elected to the Council, which directs the organisation’s policy and ideology.