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Opinionista

Imraan Buccus makes no case at all about liberalism and racism

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.

I stand accused of “gratuitous personal insults”, which is rather baffling in what I thought was a debate about whether or not classical liberalism is to blame for racism and slavery. Unfortunately, in responding to my critique of his views, Imraan Buccus does not address the substance of what I said, nor does he make an improved case for his own argument.

“The history of liberalism is entwined with racism,” wrote Imraan Buccus recently. “No it isn’t”, quoth I, calling it a revisionist smear and making what I thought was a fairly good argument why Buccus’s claim is not sustainable.

Mr Buccus promptly responded by declaring himself the winner and accusing me of “gratuitous personal insults”. Not very Oxford, then.

Nowhere in my article did I attack Mr Buccus personally. I was not very complimentary about his views, but my only reference to him personally was to state my assumption that he “is neither monumentally stupid nor historically illiterate”.

Of course, by describing me as hysterical and accusing me of personal insults, Buccus does not need to address my arguments, and indeed he does not.

He entirely ignores the actual principles associated with classical liberalism, and why they stand in clear opposition to racism, colonialism and slavery. He ignores the association of liberals with campaigns for the universal franchise, gay rights and gender equality. He ignores that the racist establishment in South Africa derided liberals (in terms so offensive that they were censored from my previous article), and that South African liberals were always, from the start, opposed to racism and racial segregation. 

At the start, he introduces a new claim: that racism as we now know it was invented in the English colony of Virginia in the 17th century. 

I’m not convinced by his appeal to a “general scholarly consensus”. Academia – and especially the humanities – is shot through with hard-left ideology and critical theory, which bases its epistemology on “lived experience”, rather than observed reality. Subjective, revisionist history and Marxist propaganda is its forte.

The qualification of his statement is revealing, however. He calls it “racism as we now know it”. It is true that so-called “scientific racism” has its origins in the Age of Enlightenment, and the development of the field of anthropology, and later, eugenics.

However, racism in the sense that the dominant culture in a particular place held the belief that people who were different from them were inferior, has existed forever. Some historians would like to draw a distinction between “racism” and “ethnocentrism”, but that’s just playing with semantics. 

Racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, call it what you will, but if you consider people that aren’t like you to be inferior, and are willing to enslave them, you’re racist. Not to absolve Virginian colonists (and white Europeans in general), but that has happened everywhere, and throughout history.

Let me quote a passage from a manuscript dating to about 860 CE. It was written by Abû Ûthmân al-Jâhiz, a black African, and discusses the Zanj, who are also black Africans:

“Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. One of them will lift huge blocks and carry heavy loads that would be beyond the strength of most Bedouins or members of other races. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.”

Extolling the superiority of his own race as contrasted with members of other races is what I would call racism. Call it what you want, racism was not “invented in Virginia”, unless you’re the product of a particular post-modern academic elite.

Even if it had been, however, it was not – and could not logically have been – a product of liberal thought, since it directly contradicts liberal principles – which I listed as “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”.

That some early thinkers associated with liberalism were racist or associated with slavery is not in dispute, so there is no need for Buccus to restate this thesis, as he does in great detail in his response to my piece.

In support of this restatement of his original claim, he presents the fallacy of an appeal to authority. He quotes Achille Mbembe, a far-left political theorist of some repute, who wrote, “[J]ust as they needed, only relatively recently, to divide humanity into masters and slaves, liberal democracies today still depend for their survival on defining a sphere of common belonging against a sphere of others, or in other words, of friends and ‘allies’ and of enemies of civilisation.”

This is Mbembe’s opinion, however. It is not an undisputed fact. Buccus does not explain why liberal principles would need a slave class, or need a common enemy. There is just no logical reason why this would be so. (Of course, classical liberalism has enemies, and among them are left-wingers and Marxists, but they are not the product of liberalism, nor does liberalism require them.)

Like Buccus, Mbembe appears to confuse correlation with causation. Simply because the rise of liberal democracy coincided with a continuation of racism, colonialism and slavery, they point to liberal democracy as the cause, without presenting any evidence for why this might be so.

To the extent that individuals or states were racist, or engaged in slavery, they were not liberal, and vice versa. We might find the roots of liberal thought in the 17th century, but it took two or three centuries for modern liberal democracies to evolve from their earlier feudal, monarchistic and mercantilistic habits.

Whereas classical liberalism is associated with free markets and free trade, colonialism was motivated by mercantilism, which dominated Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries and was the counterpart of the political absolutism against which classical liberalism was a reaction. 

Mercantilist policy tried to enhance power and wealth at the expense of other countries. The free-trade philosophy of classical liberalism, which only really gained a foothold from the mid-19th century onwards, does not. It considers trade to be mutually beneficial. 

In fact, in the free markets of classical liberal ideology, keeping large numbers of people poor or excluded from the market harms everyone. So does discriminating on grounds other than the ability to deliver on a transaction. Racism costs money in a free market, so there is a natural incentive against it. Not only have the principles of classical liberalism lifted billions out of poverty since the mid-19th century, but it needs everyone to get more prosperous in order to survive and grow. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that racism cannot survive. It clearly can, and does. However, it is an inherently illiberal impulse, and not consistent with classical liberal principles.

Buccus also revisits his belief that Hitler was inspired by liberalism, but his entire explanation is about how Hitler was inspired by colonialism. Since colonialism was not a liberal enterprise, this does not condemn liberalism in the least.

If Buccus wishes to lay the blame for the racism of early liberal thinkers at the door of liberalism, rather than the culture of their age, he might benefit from reading a few choice quotations from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 

Marx, in a letter to Engels, wrote of a political opponent, Ferdinand Lassalle: “It is now completely clear to me that he [Lassalle], as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a n****r. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also N****r-like.”

On Marx’s own son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, a creole from Cuba, he said: “Lafargue has the usual stigma of the Negro tribe: no sense of shame, I mean thereby no modesty about making himself ridiculous.”

To Lafargue’s wife, Engels wrote: “Being in his quality as a n****r, a degree nearer to the rest of the animal kingdom than the rest of us, he is undoubtedly the most appropriate representative of that district.”

Marx also didn’t have a high opinion of Mexicans: “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?”

Engels agreed with Marx: “In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will be placed under the tutelage of the United States.”

Marx despised Jews. “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. … Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities. … The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange. … The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.”

Neither Marx nor Engels were consistent in their racism, however. Marx supported the emancipation of black slaves in America, for example: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.”

One cannot, therefore, describe modern Marxism as racist, just because Marx himself was one, in the same way that one cannot describe classical liberalism as racist just because Locke was involved in slavery.

One ought to judge a political ideology by the justice of its principles, not by historical events that contradict those principles, or by the flaws of individuals that are associated (or associate themselves) with that ideology. 

Finally, Buccus ends by repeating, several times, that I’m hysterical and insulting, which I certainly was not. Perhaps this is just an attempt to deflect from the paucity of his own arguments. DM

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