A farewell to liberalism

Published in the IRR Newsletter 22 March 1969

Michael Young expresses the liberal creed quite succinctly when, in commenting on the Report of the Kerner Commission[1], he refers to liberalism as the secularised version of the Christian ethic that ‘we are all God’s children.’ One would not quarrel with such a view, embodying at it does the ultimate values of freedom and quality and brotherhood. They are, after all, the values of the revolutionary too. But if some of God’s children took it upon themselves to play God, what would the liberal do? Would he cut them down to size, so to speak, by whatever means possible, as the revolutionary would, or would he eschew certain means as contrary to dogma and thereby perpetuate or, at best, modify, the divine role of the few? He has only to accept his own history, witness as he was to the emergence of liberal democracy through the violent confrontation between commoner and king, to realise that in the final analysis privilege will yield only to force. But although liberalism was born of force, force is not a liberal value.

The Heart of the Liberal Dilemma

It is this contradiction which is at the heart of the liberal dilemma. Liberalism, it would appear, can cope with the issues of the day so long as they are capable of resolution within the existing structure of society. But when those issues are so fundamental and so pervasive as to require nothing less than the overthrow of the status quo, liberalism cowers behind a façade of non-violence. When, in other words, the ‘objective situation’ reduces one’s commitment to a choice between the fundamental values of non-violence and peaceful change – between unhold-ing one’s values at all cost and refusing to overthrow the structure at any – the liberal is caught up in the paroxysm of inaction. To argue, in these circumstances, that method may overtake principle, that violence breeds violence, is to be wilfully blind, if not impervious, to the violence already inherent in our society. For, violence in our time does not need to be overt and obtrusive to be recognised as violence. Poverty is violence, and racism; and the co-incidence of poverty and racism is a violence beyond endurance. The answer to such violence is violence only. It is inconceivable that one chooses to be violent in the circum-stances that the poor and the black are violent – for they are not event assured of success. They have ‘life to fear rather more than death.’[2] The ‘choice’ is an absurd one (in Camus’ sense of the absurd), but the oppressed have nothing to lose and only themselves to achieve. And so their violence is born of ‘choicelessness’ and nourished by despair. The violence of the oppressor, on the other hand, is conceived in choice and guaranteed of success. So that before the liberal can equate the violence of one with that of the other he needs at least to make certain that the oppressed are afforded the means and the range of choice that he himself enjoys.* Else, he must move aside and let the revolutionary do to job for him.

Erosion of Values

What he cannot do is to keep on opting for peaceful change while the values which he professes to hold are eroded before his very eyes. The choice is a hideous one; it is hardly a choice at all, though in no way comparable to the ‘choicelessness’ of the oppressed. And yet it has to be made. The alternative is to descend into the type of self-congratulatory pietism characteristic of British liberalism. (American liberalism, where it has not identified itself with the ‘white backlash’, is still obsessed with guilt; and one must perforce be heedless of the effete liberalism of Professor J.H. Plumb who writes of the liberal that ‘he wants to be fair, to make retribution, and yet he cannot easily accept the new black contempt toward the white, and he is also cons-cious, perhaps over-conscious, of a hatred of white democracy, a growing insistence on authoritarian, almost totalitarian attitudes within the black community.’)[3]

Take Dr. Young, instead, and he requires to be quoted at length, if one is to get the full flavour of latter-day liberalism. ‘White society,’ he says, ‘and above all the ethos of equality … created more than the Kerner Commission. It has sustained Negro protest. It has sustained a civil rights movement that has, after all, enjoyed more success in the last ten years than in the previous hundred. Where else did the ethos come from? – certainly not from Africa. It may seem that again and again nothing fails like success, that expectations are always outpacing achievement, but this should not detract from the achievement, which is primary. If the blame is white society’s, so it the credit.’ The books have been balanced and put away, the liberal account has been rendered, the liberal hour is done. The passage is not merely self-congratulatory and sanctimonious; it is also elegiac. And in a sense it is justifiably so, since liberalism as we have known it should have passed from the scene ere now and lost itself in the progressive forces that it had, in a way, generated. But this of course is not Dr. Young’s meaning.

The Quality of Life

Further on he refers to the progress of the American Negro under the liberal aegis. ‘The progress, such as it is, means that there has been some improvement in the Negro standard of life relative, not just to their standards in the past, but also to the present standard of whites.’ The preoccupation is with the standard of life, with ‘getting and spending’, not with being and becoming – what Martin Luther King has called ‘the quality of life.’ The issue is human dignity, on all counts. Economic and legal gains may be measured in terms of the dignity and self-respect which they achieve for the black man, but they are not in themselves the measure of this liberation. For the white liberal, assured of his manhood, the economic factor may well determine his status as a man, but for the black man, in search of manhood, the economic factor is, in the last analysis, incidental – unless, of course, the structure of society itself. Which is another way of saying that at the heard of ‘the Negro problem’ is not the inequality of acquisition but the very ethos of the acquisitive society.

One may concede, however, that it is the extreme situation in the United States which exposes the fallacies of the liberal position. Closer home, and in terms of the domestic racial problem – but only just. Benighted in America, liberalism, in Britain, has entered upon its twilight hour.

Mood of Soul-Searching

But, hopefully, the dialogue between white and black has not ceased: even the most conscious and radical elements in the coloured community have not finally despaired of communication with the white liberal. (The black liberal is another matter – a curious product of John Stuart Mill, Transport House and one’s father – a being who, in Eliot’s telling line, has ‘had the experience but missed the meaning.’)

Hopefully, too, the flamboyant racialism of Enoch Powell and the less overt racialist policies of the Labour Government have brought about a mood of soul-searching among younger liberals working in the field of race relations. They are prepared, at least, to disabuse their minds of white preconditions and imperial patronage and to come to people from below. Whether they will succeed in achieving the world or even their country will depend on how intransigent they are in claiming for every segment of this society those values which they claim from themselves. And this implies that Rhodesia is not another country – not Anguilla, nor South Africa. The contagion of black consciousness spreads faster that white recompense, and time for the liberal conscience contracts in geometric progression. The black revolutionary, for his part, can only say, with Camus: ‘We want to destroy you in your power without mutilating you in your soul.’[4]

*Editor’s note: “Fanon: ‘The Violence of the Violated’,” an article by the same author in our issue for August 1967, contains a fuller discussion of violence and its relationship with choice.

[1] Michael Young, ‘The liberal approach: its weaknesses and its strengths – a comment on the U.S. Riot Commission reprot’, in Daedalus, Fall 1968.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, in. the preface of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the earth, Penguin, 1966.

[3] J.H.Plumb, ‘Slavery, race and poverty’ in New York Review of Books, Vol. 12, no. 5, 13 March 1969.

[4] Albert Camus, ‘Letters to a German friend’ in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Hamish Hamilton, 1961.