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Mainstream, VOL LV No 15 New Delhi April 1, 2017

Did Someone Say Liberalism?

Sunday 2 April 2017

by Murzban Jal

The following paper emerged from a seminar on “Pluralism and the Crisis of Identity” organised by Zaheen Ali and Surendra Jondhale at the Mumbai University on March 12 and 13, 2017. The author writes: “I am thankful to them for inspiring me to write this piece.”

Bourgeois society continuously brings forth the Jew from its own entrails.

—Karl Marx

There is no Negro problem in the United States.

There is only a white problem.

—Richard Wright

It is not the Jewish character that provokes anti-Semitism but, rather it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

One should know one thing as a fact: global totalitarian governments cannot be wished away, especially not by wishful thinking. And most certainly those cannot be wished away by the liberal narrative that is constructed to counter it. Authoritarianism is to stay in the world determined by late imperialism in perma-nent crisis. And the quicker one recognises it, the better.

One thing that could be said is that it is not authoritarianism that is a problem. It is liberalism. And this is because authoritarianism is not a problem, it is a reality. It is liberalism that is a problem and it is liberalism that is actually fueling authoritarianism. One forgets what Lenin said about the liberals, namely, that they are “civilized hyenas whetting their teeth on Asia”.1 And thus what is liberalism? Liberalism and liberal science are nothing but (to follow the revolutionary repertoire) the defence of wage slavery.2 One imagined that it was the liberal discourse of representative government, bourgeois freedom of the press, bourgeois legislation, bourgeois liberty and equality that would serve as the messianic “end of history” and the triumph of the “last man”—the theme best made famous by Francis Fukuyama. True, a certain sort of “end” did come. And so did this “last man” come. But one found that this “last man” was not the smooth- speaking and suave liberal. Instead one found the fascist.

The age of triumphant authoritarianism and the emergence of a violent Right-wing narrative throughout the world, including in India, have consequently brought in new concepts: “need of a new tolerance”, “multiculturalism without clashes”, “free choice”, “crisis of pluralism”, etc. It is then said that to counter the politics of identity, one needs to recreate the ethics and memory of liberalism. Liberalism becomes the new emancipator. One needs an Indian Hillary Clinton to be emancipated from a Hindutva Donald Trump. In this narrative one forgets that Clinton is Trump with a human/humanitarian face. 

What is locked in the ideological cranium and unfortunate Faustian breast of this New Narrative are the two souls that have been haunting contemporary civilised world. These are: liberalism/totalitarianism, democracy/fascism, free speech/censorship, tolerance/intolerance, peace/war, non-violence/violence. Little does one recognise that these binaries are false. Instead of analysing the entire body of contemporary society, one is forced to analyse the two parts of the Faustian soul, not knowing that souls have never existed. One is then, like Goethe’s Faust, forced into the capitalist hell.

Once upon a time throughout the world it was said that the good Doctor Jekyll ruled. Now it is Mr Hyde ruling. Doctor Jekyll and his band of liberal followers claim that Mr Hyde are intolerant. Little does one understand that the good Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde are one and the same person. What does this mean? That liberalism and fascism, free speech and censorship, tolerance and intolerance, peace and war, non-violence and violence are one and the same? How, so one may ask, is this possible?

The problem is that concepts like liberalism remain ethereal, un-thought of. Or if thought of, liberalism remains half-thought. Liberalism then becomes like the good god who created the world, the god that is eternally good. But little does one understand that gods are Janus faced and along with the good god, stands the wrathful god—the god that is not good, but powerful enough to doubt the very existence of this liberal god himself. The liberal god is dead. And we do not need Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to tell us.

With the death of this liberal god, the fascist god is born. Fascism is thus this angry god. And late capitalism in permanent crisis is fascinated with angry gods. One prefers angry gods to polite ones. Anger and intolerance are commodities that are very saleable.

What liberalism did was it never wanted to talk of the political economy of this “tolerance” debate. It never wanted to know why the gods are on the rampage attacking seminars, declaring a great part of the Indian population as traitors and anti-nationals. Instead of claiming that the gods are angry because global accumulation of capital necessities this awful and greatly unjust anger, it talks of “multiculturalism” and the “crisis of identity”.

The idea of “pluralism and the crisis of identity” is tied down to the question of history and political economy. Both these are themselves tied down to the question of the nation-state, and tied to this question is the question whether nation-states are inevitable, or in contrast, whether these have been forced by colonialism onto the greater part of the world. Consequently to the question of pluralism and the question of identity is tied the question of history. Is history thus to be understood as a unilinear type of progress (from the so-called “primitive commu-nism” via the slave-feudal-capitalist that finally and most miraculously culminates into socia-lism), or is there a different type of history that one needs to reconstruct—a history that is mulilinear and democratic?

So how does one refigure scientific discourse such that a truly democratic society can be possible? Should one move in the arena of traditional philosophy and thus merely analyse what “identity”, “difference” and “pluralism” mean, or is it necessary to transcend the entire repertoire of philosophy? Should then one involve what Marx one said: To involve a transcendence (Aufhebung) of philosophy by involving a realisation (Verwirklichung) of it?3 And to which new site do we go? Which New Continent of Knowledge would one discover such that the false consciousness (“tolerance in the age of the dictatorship of finance capital”) of the earlier liberal repertoire is critiqued in its revolutionary perspective?

One way is to follow Marx who had said that there is only one science—the science of history.4 It is to this New Science that we turn our attention to. What are the contours of this New Science? They are humanism and naturalism. What we find is that this science has to be understood as a human natural science5 which involves the humanisation and naturalisation of society itself. What one needs to recognise that the dimension of the human condition is to be understood—as humanism and historicism (as Antonio Gramsci pointed out)—the human condition in its concrete dialectical and historical materialist context. Marx’s words to his daughters Jenny and Laura in 1865 ring out: Nihil humani a me alienum puto (Nothing human is alien to me).

The problem is that we have all forgotten this human condition in its proper dialectical and historical materialist context. Fascism along with liberalism and the transcendental memory of tolerance rides on the backs of this forgetfulness of the human condition.

Post-Enlightenment Culture as the Psychotic Culture Industry

Slavoj Zizek quite often chides culture theorists for fetishising culture by recalling the old fascist statement made fashionable by Goebbels: “When I hear of culture, I turn for my gun.”6 Culture theorists, in attempting to inverse economic reductionism thought that they were trying to bring in the studies of culture, which vulgar materialism had exiled as a mere reflection of a hidden economic base. But in inverting a fallacy, they were recreating another fallacy.

At this time we must say that there are four distinct methods of understanding what “culture” means.

1. Culture as a “whole way of life” and “common resource of meaning” (to borrow expressions of Raymond Williams). Here one also includes mind-sets, sets of values, realm of literature and the arts (the so-called “high culture”), also spelt out as “refinement”.

2. Culture as dieBildung, a theme derived from the European Enlightenment, most clearly in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. Culture here is meant as cultivating human sensibilities and the acquisition of the knowledge of the true, the good and the beautiful. Along with these ideas is intrinsically tied the question of human freedom. Thus when one talks of culture, one does not move to one’s gun in horrible fright. Here culture as cultivating humanity is not mere petty bourgeois cultivating, but is the cultivating of the desire for revolution. Rebellion is then related to this idea of culture.

3. The regression of culture from die Bildung to the emergence of the culture industry—where “shiny white teeth” (as Theodor Adorno pointed out) matter more than humanity. In fact it is shiny white teeth and even more shiny white skin that matter the most when culture as Bildung moves into the state of regression. In this mode of regression, one also moves into the state of repression that Freud placed at the centre of his scientific study. In this domain of culture as culture industry, one also negates the old bourgeois idea of “high culture” as the Concert Hall idea of culture or even the Museum Definition of Culture where culture is understood as the collections of exotic objects. Culture is here commoditised, where the complete destruction of critical thinking and conse-quently the misuse and abuse of reason is placed at its epicentre. The use of reason then becomes the abuse of reason.

4. Culture as cultural nationalism. One now moves from the site of culture as commodity to culture as racial and theological supremacy. The “spectaclisation of culture” (that we borrow from Walter Benjamin) and the production of what we call after Fredric Jameson as the “hysterical sublime” become the two important motifs of cultural nationa-lism. Its leitmotiv is the devaluation of the idea of culture as resistance. Cultural nationalism is the epitome of the post-Enlightenment project where psychosis and mass hysteria replace the use of reason.

It is to this idea of reason (Vernunft—or the Hegelian idea of reason as the dialectical struggle of freedom) that we need to turn to and not to questions of “pluralism” and “multiculturalism”. And with this new idea of reason as freedom where one understands the synthesis of German classical philosophy, French socialism and English political economy. And at the doorsteps of this triad that one cultivates a certain form of “disdain” that Marx and Engels talked of in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Consider these immortal words:

“The Communists disdain (my emphasis—M.J.) to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”7

Note alongside the word “disdain” that the word “fear” is used. However this must be put in the proper context of the Manifesto where Marx and Engels chide the forces of Old Europe for calling the insurrectionist proletariat as a ghost, some sort of evil, a spectre haunting the good Christian world. What we also learn is that in this chiding, or to be precise manu-facturing of “nursery tales” (Märchen) that the revolutionary proletariat is an evil ghost, that “all European Powers” acknowledge commu-nism as a “Power” (Macht).8 And it is to this Macht that we now need to turn to:

”We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror. But the royal terrorists, the terrorists by the grace of God and the law, are in practice brutal, disdainful, and mean, in theory cowardly, secretive, and deceitful, and in both respects disreputable.”9

To recall Zizek’s recalling of Robespierre:

“Virtue without Terror is impotent, while Terror without Virtue is lethal, striking blindly.“10

A Different Practice of Philosophy

What one needs to recognise is that one needs a “different practice of philosophy” (to recall Louis Althusser’s celebrated term from his Lenin and Philosophy).11 in order to understand the crisis of the liberal project. Philosophy as a radical philosophising enterprise, where analysis of the human condition is considered the essence of philosophical reasoning, refuses to be contem-plative, refuses to mutter angry phrases against the dominant conservative order.

Instead as analysis, it turns to the very problem—the liberal consensus. What is the essence of this liberal consensus? The essence is that one cannot revolt. That is why I am saying that what we need to recover is not the liberal order in order to counter the intolerant order. The liberal order has what become Jean-Paul Sartre called the “practico-inert”. The practico-inert crushes all desires of revolution.

It is imperative to understand that the liberal order now no longer stands as the ideas of representative government, freedom of the press, legislation, liberty and equality. Instead it stands only as an alienated superstructural gaze, gazing at the violent order of things without having any capacity to do anything. Not only is at an alienated gaze, it is also some form of violent masturbation. Liberalism then is understood as masturbation in the time of violent fascism. It becomes like traditional philosophy that Marx had critiqued:

“Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism and sexual love. Saint Sancho (our liberal, my insertion—M.J.), who in spite of his absence of thought—which we have noted by us patiently and by him emphatically—remains within the world of pure thoughts, can, of course, save himself from it only by means of a moral postulate, the postulate of “thought-lessness”. He is a bourgeois who saves himself in the face of commerce by the banqueroute cochenne (swinish bankruptcy), whereby, of course, he becomes not a proletarian, but an impecu-nious, bankrupt bourgeois. He does not become a man of the world, but a bankrupt philosopher without thoughts.”12

Have we not become this bankrupt philoso-pher-bourgeois/bourgeois-philosopher without thoughts gazing at fascism that is creating global carnage?

It is for this reason that we critique liberalism. But there is another reason: liberalism is nothing but fascism without a gun, just as fascism is liberalism with a gun. We should have known this. Anyone who has read Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic will know that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same person.

The question remains: Who is the fascist and who is the liberal? Is Hillary Clinton, Trump with a human face; or is Trump, Hillary with a humanitarian face? Would Trump and his whole gang of global authoritarianisms be serving humanity, by openly declaring that capitalism is essentially violent, racist, xeno-phobic and inward looking?

It is for this dialectical and historical reason that we look forward to the rule of authoritarian governments. For they signify the “last stage of capitalism”. So what do we learn from this? We learn that authoritarianism is the last stage of capitalism, just as we learn from Lenin that imperialism is the last stage of capitalism.

Capitalism exists in its terminal stage. And neither the sweet lies of liberalism, nor the hate-mongering of the fascists can save it.


1. V.I. Lenin, ‘The Historical Destiny of Karl Marx’ in Lenin, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977, p. 19).

2. V.I. Lenin, ‘The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism’ in Marx, Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 23.

3. Karl Marx, ‘Introduction. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 257.

4. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), 98. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 34, n.

5. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 99.

6. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Tolerance as an Ideological Category’ in Critical Inquiry, Autumn, 2007.

7. Karl Marx and Frederic Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Marx, Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 63.

8. Ibid., p. 35. See also Karl Marx, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’ in Die Frühschriften (Berlin: Dietz Verlag 2004), p. 594.

9. Karl Marx, ‘The Final Issue of Neue Rheinische Zeitung (18 May 1849)’ in Marx-Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Vol. VI, p. 503.

10. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Introduction. Robespierre, or the ‘Divine Violence’ of Terror’ in Maximilen Robespierre, Virtue and Terror (London: Verso, 2007), p. XXV.

11. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2006), p. 17

12. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, pp. 253-4.

Prof Murzban Jal is the Director, Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, Pune.