Perry Anderson on Rawls

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2005

The latest “New Left Review has a piece by Perry Anderson”: on the thinking of Rawls, Habermas and Bobbio on global order and justice. Since I’m busy teaching Rawls’s “Law of Peoples”: at the moment, I thought I’d give it a read. The article has all the classic Anderson hallmarks — the arrogant pronouncement of judgement from on high, the frequent lapses into Latin, a will to the most unsympathetic reading possible. Typically, Anderson is incapable of reading his targets in any other way that as providing pragmatic cover for the American hegemon. On the one hand he seems to adopt the stance of high principle against the unwitting tools of US power whose every argument is accounted for in terms of their personal history and psychology, but on the other it seems hard to know where the critical principles can be coming from since it is hard to see how, on Anderson’s world-view, principles can ever be anything other than the residue of power politics as false consciousness.

The central charge against Rawls and Habermas is that of providing left philosophical cover for Western intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In Rawls’s case, this is because Rawls argues in general terms that “outlaw states” which violate human rights and threaten their neighbours cannot claim immunity from intervention from liberal states. Does Anderson advance a counter-argument to the effect that the state sovereignty of such regimes is inviolable, or that considerations such as those adduced by Rawls are insufficiently weighty to over-ride such considerations? No, of course not. Anderson wouldn’t stoop to construct such an argument: for him, all that counts is the interest of powers.

Two examples which especially annoyed me of Anderson misresepresenting Rawls to his readers are below the fold, no doubt others could be found.

Anderson summarizing Rawls:

bq. The fire-bombing of Hamburg was justified in the Second World War, if not that of Dresden.


bq. Were there times during World War II when Britain could properly have held that civilians’ strict status was suspended, and thus could have bombed Hamburg or Berlin? Possibly, but only if it was sure that the bombing would have done some substantial good: such action cannot be justified by a doubtful marginal gain. When Britain was alone and had no other means to break Germany’s superior power, the bombing of German cities was arguably justifiable. This period extended, at the least, from the fall of France in June 1940 until Russia had clearly beaten off the first German assault in the summer and fall of 1941 and showed that it would be about the fight Germany until the end. It could be argued that this period extended further until the summer and fall of 1942 or even through the Battle of Stalingrad. (LoP 98-9).

Operation Gomorrah — the firebombing of Hamburg — took place on the night of 27 July 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad ended in February 1943.


bq. It had been an error of _A Theory of Justice_ , he explained, to suggest that a capitalist welfare state could be a just social order.

Rawls in _Justice as Fairness_ (p. 134):

bq. One reason for discussing these difficult matters is to bring out the distinction between a property-owning democracy, which realizes all the main political values expressed by the two principles of justice, and a capitalist welfare state, which does not. [Rawls continued in a footnote: “This distinction is not sufficiently noted in _Theory_ ….”]

{ 6 trackbacks }

03.08.05 at 5:46 am
03.08.05 at 5:49 am
03.08.05 at 5:52 am
03.08.05 at 5:58 am
03.08.05 at 6:01 am
03.08.05 at 9:48 pm



Donald Johnson 03.03.05 at 4:33 pm

I didn’t understand what Rawls is saying in the last quote. Anyone want to elaborate?


Matt 03.03.05 at 4:53 pm

On Rawls’s account, a capitalist welfare state rejects the “fair value of political liberties” and doesn’t have the means to offer fair equality of opportunity. It also permits very large inequalities in ownership of land, capital, and resources, and doesn’t recognize a principle of reciprocity in regulating social inequalities. A “property owning democracy” works to “disperse the ownership of wealth and capital” so as to keep power from being concentrated. There are other differences as well, but this is a rought sketch. See section IV of _Justice as Fairness_ for discussion


Javier 03.03.05 at 5:54 pm

As I recall, Rawls also says that a liberal socialist regime (market socialism) also satisfies the principles of justice as fairness. A laissez-faire and capitalist welfare state fall considerably short.


John 03.03.05 at 5:59 pm

Anderson has been misrepresenting arguments he disagrees with and substituting wishful thinking (“theory”) for facts for so long (at least as far back as the “Pecularities of the English” debate) that I’m surprised anybody still takes him seriously.


roger 03.03.05 at 7:04 pm

Interesting: “The central charge against Rawls and Habermas is that of providing left philosophical cover for Western intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In Rawls’s case, this is because Rawls argues in general terms that “outlaw states” which violate human rights and threaten their neighbours cannot claim immunity from intervention from liberal states.” The argument Anderson is making is obviously that the inverse is not considered. The U.S. might well be a democracy, but it might vote into office a power that , for instance, is intent on legalizing the American generation of pollutants to an extent actually harming the health and welfare of other nations in the world. Just to take an obviously fictitious example. And they might continually re-elect such a faction. So: is there a right to intervene, militarily, to prevent the Americans from causing harm to the rest of the world? What if it could be proven that the American government, or, say, the U.K., intentionally and with forethought encouraged the sale of weapons manufactured in those countries to despots and human rights violators who used them in systematically immoral ways. Could the citizens of these countries, stop this heinous action by force? Would Rawls approve? If the Sandinistas, for instance, had mined the Miami harbor, would Rawls have out there, cheering them on?

Anderson is asking a fair question: is the liberal world order of infinitely beneficient interventions by democratic powers merely a camoflaged continuation of an old colonial order, founded on the slave trade, conquest, and genocide? Is it possible that the liberal powers, heirs of their illiberal forefathers, are continuing the work of their forefathers? And if it isn’t, why is it that no other forms of restitution and change than intervention are considered?

If Rawls is right, surely one can look around and find acts of pure benefit that emerge from liberal interventions. So, where are they? If Anderson is right, there should be material benefits flowing to intervening nations that have couched their interventions in liberal terms. Are there any?

On Anderson’s side is history: for example, the seizure of half of Africa, by the Brits, was done in the name of stopping the slave trade, and ended up benefitting white British farmers, ranchers, and miners enormously, while displacing and destroying native African groups. On Rawls side — Bosnia has not recently suffered the massacres it suffered last decade.

The dispute between Rawls and Anderson isn’t about misreading, then, it is about interpreting social facts. Nor is Anderson’s position simply nihilistic — for instance, if he is right, a positive liberal politics would recognize past and current patterns of economic and ecological oppression. A good place to start would be to stop the use of the World Bank to jimmy wealth out of third world nations after investors have systematically corrupted a ruling elite with bribes and saturated these countries with huge and unproductive debts by calling for a massive debt cancellation. For instance, the vast majority of the money loaned to Venezuala in the 90s was robbed by the governing class that contracted the debts, with the knowledge and the connivence of the lenders. Let’s simply make those debts uncollectable. A nice form of liberal intervention, n’est-ce pas?


Matt 03.03.05 at 7:19 pm

Since it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s read Rawls that the US doesn’t count as a fully just society by any means, and certainly 19th Century England didn’t, how do your examples actually relate to what Rawls says? Of course people can try to use what Rawls says to justify all sorts of things about present US policy. It’s pretty clear they are wrong when they are doing this, though. So, I wonder what you think your point is.


roger 03.03.05 at 7:32 pm

Matt, your claim seems to be, then, that there were no liberal democracies a la Rawls until … when, exactly? To which I have to ask the question: Where did they appear? How are they connected to these non-liberal entities they used to be? If I were the heir of a mafia fortune, and I decided to engage in good works, wouldn’t I have to ask myself first — where did this money come from?

My claim is pretty simple — that philosophy is not so distant from social fact that you can’t look around in the world to make judgments about conflicting claims. And certainly one of the great social facts during Rawls life time was the explosion in debt in the third world . And that debt had a pattern — money from poorer countries poured into rich countries. So I am thinking, hmm, if we really want our liberal interveners to be liberal, maybe they can start their intervening at home. I also notice that the liberal intervenors in Bosnia were, simulatanously, arming to the teeth various non-democratic countries — for instance in the Gulf. And I think: well, if Anderson is right, I’d expect that these for profit enterprises will be given some ideological covering to make them seem democratic.

I refer you to the speeches of Bush, vis a vis Pakistan.


Louis Proyect 03.03.05 at 7:46 pm

I can’t understand Chris’s peevishness with Perry Anderson. Isn’t it obvious that Rawls, Bobbio and Habermas have an overly sanguine view of the USA as moral actor? It might be understandable that men who fought in WWII might have illusions about the stars and stripes of the kind found in movies like Ben Barzman’s “Back to Bataan” or John Howard Lawson’s “Sahara”, but for a relative youngster like Chris who came of age during the Vietnam war, such illusions are most unseemly.

People such as Gabriel Kolko exposed the sordid history of liberal interventionism when he was a lad. From the Vietnam era revisionists, we learn that Sumner Welles longed for the days when “the Pacific should be a lake under American jurisdiction…”

Meanwhile, Churchill wrote Eden at the time, “If the Americans want to take Japanese islands which they have conquered, let them do so with our blessing and any form of words that may be agreeable to them. But ‘Hands Off the British Empire’ is our maxim.”

As far as the struggle against Hitlerism is concerned, I’ll refer you to “The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion” by Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel. It is interesting that this MR book had a preface by Christopher Hitchens before he went through the Road to Damascus conversion that Attila Hoare and Chris went through.


Matt 03.03.05 at 7:47 pm

I agree that the things you mention are very bad. My point is, Rawls agrees too- quite clearly. This is _obvious_ to anyone who reads him. He _Agrees_ that the US is far from just, and should change its behavior at home and abroad. So, why is the bad behavior of a system (the US) that Rawls thinks is bad a criticism of Ralws? I just don’t get it. Notice that I didn’t say the US isn’t a liberal democracy. Or that nothing done by a liberal democracy is wrong- certainly Ralws says nothing like that either. I think it’s clear that you’re either fighting a straw man or are misunderstanding something about what Rawls says, or what his project is, or both.


Matt 03.03.05 at 8:03 pm

What’s your evidence that Rawls had an overly sanguine view of the US as a moral actor? Can you cite a text for us? Note that Rawls condemned many actions by the alies in WWII, even some that probably personally helped him, such as the use of nuclear bombs on Japan. This view is also not supported by, say, discussion w/ his former students. So, unless you can cite some texts, I’ll assume you’re making things up.


roger 03.03.05 at 8:23 pm

Matt, are you saying that Rawls was not an advocate for a liberal interventionism? In which case, if you are right, I am wrong. Or are you saying his case for liberal interventionism, acknowledges the interests and structural ‘problems” of the liberal interveners, but still advocates a policy of military interventions? In which case I’d want to know more about how we value and what we do about that acknowledgement — is there a threshhold beyond which we acknowledge that intervention is vicious because it is being carried out by the illiberal to shore up an unjust system? Or are our judgments wholly dependent on the monstrousness of the rulers of the state intervened upon?

Practical reason would instruct us that intention is not the whole of morality — both means and character are also factors. To give a concrete instance of this — when Truman intervened in Korea, he also decided to desegregate the armed forces, realizing that it was impossible to hold the moral high ground and still hold to outright racism. So here’s the question — if we have a theory of intervention that is only one way — that has no channel that changes the bad behavior of the intervenors — doesn’t this rather explode the very base of liberal intervention?


Chris Bertram 03.03.05 at 8:28 pm

I can’t understand Chris’s peevishness with Perry Anderson.

I should disclose that I have experience both as an employee of Anderson’s at Verso and as a member of the NLR editorial committee. I think a straw poll of former occupants of either position would reveal a great deal of peevishness quite unrelated to any political difference. But apart from that: what Matt said.


Chris Bertram 03.03.05 at 8:35 pm

Roger and Louis are wrong to see Rawls as thinking of America as a just society, but they would be right to see Rawls as having a more benign (because more balanced) view of the US than Anderson does.

Notice how Anderson characterized Rawls’s service in the war against aggressive Japanese militarism:

bq. Service in America’s war to regain the Pacific.


Matt 03.03.05 at 8:41 pm

Rawls does allow for intervention in some cases- surely any sensible theory will do this-. I’d like to go back to the text if I could, but I’m not at home and my books are. But, there are quite specific instances where intervention may be justified. Whether Kosovo was such as case I can’t say. There is a distinct question about how an intervention is undertaken. This is, I’d think, elementary. But note, Rawls is offering a normative account about when something (intervention) is justified, not a practical plan of action nor a policy program, which seems to be what you’re after. It’s good to be after that- but it’s just not his program. This is no different than the domestic account- he doesn’t provide a worked out idea of what a just tax sheme would look like, though of couse we’d like someone to figure that out.


Louis Proyect 03.03.05 at 8:44 pm

Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. My reference to the US as moral actor was broader than WWII. From what I understand, Rawls had a honorable position on Hiroshima.

I was referring instead to the notion that American capitalist politicians act out of some moral consideration. In Rawls’ case, this led to a wild exaggeration of Lincoln’s virtues.

Any impartial study of Lincoln’s career would reveal not the slightest willingness to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was adopted in order to shore up the North during a particularly perilous moment in the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln a Racist?

In his new book, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, black American author, Lerone Bennett, presents historic evidence supporting the theory that Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, a devoted racist harboring a life-long desire to see all black Americans deported to Africa.

Bennett suggests that as a young politician in Illinois, Lincoln regularly used racial slurs in speeches, told racial jokes to his black servants, and vocally opposed any new laws that would have bettered the lives of black Americans.

Key to Bennett’s thesis is the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation which, Bennett argues, Lincoln was forced into issuing by the powerful abolitionist wing of his own party. Bennett asserts that Lincoln carefully worded the document to apply only to the rebel Southern states, which were not under Union control at the time, thus resulting in an Emancipation Proclamation that did not in itself free a single slave.

At one point, Bennett quotes William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, who referred to the proclamation as a hollow, meaningless document showing no more than, “our sympathy with the slaves by emancipating the slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

Henry Clay Whitney, a close friend of Lincoln, is quoted by Bennett as saying the proclamation was “not the end designed by him (Lincoln), but only the means to the end, the end being the deportation of the slaves and the payment for them to their masters – at least to those who were loyal.”

Bennett asserts that Lincoln often put forth plans for deporting the slaves to Africa both before and during his presidency.

The tone of Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream is decidedly angry, as if Bennett feels betrayed by what he calls the “myth” of Abraham Lincoln.

“No other American story is so enduring. No other American story is so comforting. No other American story is so false.” — Lerone Bennett, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.


george 03.03.05 at 9:41 pm

Two comments:

First, you all might be interested in how Human Rights Watch addressed some of these issues in the course of determining that the Iraq War was not a humanitarian intervention. That might seem obvious, but HRW took a surprisingly balanced view. See here:

Second: Roger, are you for real, or are you a Chris Onstad character? Compare Roger’s blog and Cornelius Bear’s blog, and tell me they are not written by the same person.


Chris Bertram 03.03.05 at 9:54 pm

Any impartial study of Lincoln’s career would reveal not the slightest willingness to abolish slavery.

Readers may want to look at “James M. McPherson’s NYT review”: of the Bennett book that Louis P mentions.


roger 03.03.05 at 10:13 pm

George, thanks for the cornelius bear link! I’d never read that guy before. We are both, obviously, epigones of the master, the great Plum. Although I do think my berty woosterish infatuation with L’il Kim deserves some props, as they say in my soi-disant posse.

Matt, hmm, I think our disagreement may be, more fundamentally, about what “normative” means. You obviously take it to be exclusively rule-bound — I don’t. I think that the emphasis I’ve been putting — on character and means — falls squarely within a non-formal tradition of practical reasoning. I’ve used the U.S. and the U.K. as examples, but you can perfectly well extrapolate to other histories and other positions within political and economic systems — if you wanted, you could extrapolate to the Athenians and Syracus. I suppose, outside of what I take Rawls position to be regarding the social facts of U.S. intervention, the deeper objection is to any construction of political philosophy that is exclusively rules based.


george 03.03.05 at 10:30 pm

I see you are not familiar with the Mel Blanc-like talents of Mr. Onstad. Start here:


Louis Proyect 03.03.05 at 11:30 pm

The Boston Globe, February 23, 1991
Learning from Lincoln, the war leader

By Mark Muro, Globe Staff

Compact and eagle-eyed, Princeton historian James McPherson writes about the Civil War, yet speaks crisply of a newer conflagration: the Persian Gulf war.

“President Bush is saying, ‘Here’s our nonnegotiable purpose: The sovereignty of Kuwait,’ and really that’s very much like Lincoln,” McPherson was observing recently, over afternoon tea at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.

“Lincoln said, ‘Here’s our aim: The sovereignty of the union,’ ” McPherson went on.

“He never wavered from that objective, though as events proceeded he added a second nonnegotiable demand: Emancipation of the slaves. Similarly, in the gulf, Bush must keep his aims clear, and make it plain if he decides to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

“Bush must do as Lincoln,” McPherson concluded.


Donald Johnson 03.03.05 at 11:31 pm

From my extremely limited reading of Rawls, I have a good opinion of him. That aside, I agree with most of what I think Roger is saying–whether it is a fair criticism of Rawls might be doubtful, but it’s a pretty good criticism of liberals who are constantly urging the US to intervene here and there and don’t spell out the difference between what moral principle distinguishes Darfur from situations when the US is the chief villain, a circumstance which has occurred with depressing frequency throughout its history. (Though I think we were the good guys, relatively speaking, in WWII.) People think we should send military forces into Darfur. So who should have intervened in Vietnam, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, El Salvador, Angola, Zaire, etc… when the US was either killing people or helping other people kill people? And shouldthere be a humanitarian military rescue mission to liberate the people being tortured by the US in various places? The answer, of course, is no, for the same reason we aren’t about to liberate Tibet.

I think the liberal interventionist types would have more intellectual credibility if they’d forthrightly admit that they advocate going after weak countries like Serbia and the Sudan and not against powerful countries like the US and China because military force can accomplish something against the weak, but will lead to catastrophe if employed against the strong. It’s the use of Chomsky’s reasoning in a way Chomsky never intended–you speak out against the atrocities you can stop, and it’s easier to stop the Serbs than it is to stop the Americans.


fifi 03.03.05 at 11:35 pm

Why do seemingly intelligent people discuss politics as if
situations in the world weren’t narrative props for the expression of
our individual personalities? McGuffins. What do you people hope to accomplish with politics, and
when do you expect to finally accomplish it? It’s been hundreds of
thousands of years already. Oh well, I like to bury bones then dig them up again, so I guess we have lots in common.


Donald Johnson 03.03.05 at 11:40 pm

In the heat of composing the previous rant, I forgot to thank Matt for the explanation of Rawls. Thanks. I gather, then, that the US would be like the capitalist welfare state and maybe Sweden would come closer to the democracy which has private property but tries to spread the wealth around a bit more.


Javier 03.04.05 at 12:33 am

Louis, what exactly is the point of posting that story? If you’re trying to discredit McPherson, you really need to attack his scholarship, not his opinions on particularly political issues, even if he was discussing Lincoln in reference to those issues.


Javier 03.04.05 at 12:37 am

I gather, then, that the US would be like the capitalist welfare state and maybe Sweden would come closer to the democracy which has private property but tries to spread the wealth around a bit more.

Although Rawls is pretty vague on this point, I would actually think that Sweden is an example of a capitalist welfare state rather than a property-owning democracy. As far as I can tell, Rawls’s favored regime types have never actually existed. There are a few relevant passages from Justice As Fairness about this, but I’m afraid I don’t have the book with me to cite them.


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 1:24 am

I find it difficult to separate McPherson’s comments on the first Gulf War from his scholarship actually. If it isn’t difficult for you, then be my guest. It’s a free country.

In any case, Lerone Bennett’s basic point is not that controversial. You’ll find the same observations made in Eric Foner and other Marxist historians too numerous to mention. I was in a hurry today debugging some java code and couldn’t track down a quote from Foner. Bennett had to do in a pinch, flaws and all.

More to the point, one wonders what Chris thinks. Does he think that Lincoln fought the civil war to free the slaves out of a commitment to Enlightment values and the teachings of John Locke? Btw, Locke believed in slavery and wrote a defense of it in the Carolina constitution.

I wait with bated breath for a fully developed response from Chris. I have learned the ropes here and at Cliopatria, where the muckety-mucks have developed evasion to an art form.


Javier 03.04.05 at 2:13 am

I find it difficult to separate McPherson’s comments on the first Gulf War from his scholarship actually. If it isn’t difficult for you, then be my guest. It’s a free country.

I just don’t see how its relevant at all…If McPherson supported the first Gulf War, does that mean his historical analysis of Lincoln is wrong? I fail to see the connection.

In any case, Lerone Bennett’s basic point is not that controversial. You’ll find the same observations made in Eric Foner and other Marxist historians too numerous to mention.

While I’m not a Lincoln scholar, I have read several scholarly books about Lincoln over the years and I do find Leorne Bennett’s contention to be controversial (not to mention badly supported) and, from what I can tell, I believe many historians do as well. Perhaps it isn’t controversial among Marxist historians–but I doubt this as well.

McPherson’s point seems basically correct: “There is, of course, no doubt that Lincoln shared many of the racist convictions of his time. But while he was not a radical abolitionist, he did consider slavery morally wrong, and seized the opportunity presented by the war to move against it.”

Anyway, this hardly seems relevant to the topic of the post, so I’m going to drop it.


Chris Bertram 03.04.05 at 7:42 am

More to the point, one wonders what Chris thinks. Does he think that Lincoln fought the civil war to free the slaves out of a commitment to Enlightment values and the teachings of John Locke? Btw, Locke believed in slavery and wrote a defense of it in the Carolina constitution.

I wait with bated breath for a fully developed response from Chris. I have learned the ropes here and at Cliopatria, where the muckety-mucks have developed evasion to an art form.

Louis, I have no wish to be evasive at all, but being neither a historian nor an American my knowledge of Lincoln is rather limited. I’m in no position, therefore, to give anyone a “fully developed response” on this point. But I was suspicious of the claims you referred to and had a root around both JSTOR and the internet more widely for reviews of Bennett’s book. So far as I could tell from my limited reading, the consensus among professional historians (and McPherson’s review seemed typical in this respect) was that Bennett research is flawed. Flawed mainly in the respect that he is extremely sceptical of all sources the contradict his view and shows extreme credulity towards sources which appear to support it. Most reviews argue contra Bennett that (a) whilst Lincoln was undoubtedly a racist (and especially by the standards of 2005) his views evolved for the better over time and (b) Lincoln was opposed to slavery as an institution although willing to compromise the abolitionist goal for other values at various points in his career.


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 3:04 pm

I am no expert on the slavery and the Civil War myself but I did review a fair amount of the literature, especially Marxist, in a series of email postings answering a fellow by the name of Charles Post who teaches sociology at Sara Lawrence. Post, like me, is a former member of the Trotskyist movement in the USA. He is also politically close to Robert Brenner, a fellow member of Solidarity. After I discovered that Post had adapted the Brenner thesis to American slavery, I replied using an approach that I had developed through reading and discussions with the late James Blaut, who regarded the Brenner thesis as Eurocentric.

In general, my approach was to critique the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie being forced to demolish a precapitalist economic institution. I regard the Southern planter class as throroughly bourgeois, even though it used slave labor.

Here’s a brief excerpt from a series of articles that can be found at
under the heading “Capitalism, Slavery and the Brenner Thesis.” As should be obvious, despite everything that John Rawls has written, I am not inclined to be deferential to Enlightenment figures such as Locke, Hume and Kant.

In her July-August 1998 Monthly Review defense of the Brenner thesis (, Ellen Meiksins Wood singles out John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of agrarian capitalism. With Locke’s emphasis on “improvement”, which revolved around soil cultivation techniques, etc., he stood as an implacable foe of feudal or precapitalist waste, presumably including chattel slavery.

However, the slave masters of the New World did not quite see things that way. According to James Oakes in “Slavery and Freedom”, not only were they receptive to Enlightenment ideals; they played a vanguard role in adapting Locke to the revolution of 1776. Oakes writes:

“The writings of eighteenth-century Southerners were steeped in Lockean premises, never more thoroughly than during the American Revolution. ‘Men in a State of Nature are absolutely free and independent of one another as to sovereign Jurisdiction,’ Richard Bland of Virginia wrote in 1766. They enter into society ‘by their own consent,’ he explained, just as ‘they have a natural Right to quit the Society of which they are Members . . . [to] recover their natural Freedom and Independence.'” (p. 60)

Indeed, Locke, a slave-owner himself, wrote the state constitution of South Carolina in 1669 that stipulated: “But yet no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all things in the same state and condition he was In before.”

If the Brenner thesis posits market coercion as a sine qua non for capitalism, and if John Locke is the quintessential philosopher for the newly emerging system, then how does one reconcile this contradiction? The answer to this question highlights an essential flaw in the Brenner thesis, namely its failure to appreciate the role of racism in the development of capitalism in the New World. Specifically, if indigenous people and Africans are seen as subhuman, then Enlightenment ideas about freedom, including the freedom to compete in labor markets, do not really apply to them. You might as well talk about the right of a mule to vote or teach school.

Some of the most advanced thinkers in Great Britain believed that Africans were a species midway between apes and white men. In a footnote to “Of National Characters”, David Hume writes:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences… Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people, without education, will start up amonst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly”.


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 3:14 pm

URL for articles on “Capitalism, Slavery and the Brenner Thesis”:


Mox 03.04.05 at 3:54 pm

It’s been a long time since I took Eric Foner’s classes, but I don’t remember him having that point of view about Lincoln. I may be getting him mixed up with James Shenton, though, who taught a very “great man” version of the Civil War.

I don’t remember Foner writing that way about Lincoln in RECONSTRUCTION, either, though I believe he did write about the “repatriation” idea.


Chris Bertram 03.04.05 at 4:51 pm


I think you are quite mistaken to try to foist that particular racist view on Locke. Locke’s apologia for slavery in the Americas is indeed repellent, but it doesn’t rest on him abandoning his views about natural freedom and equality. Laslett seems to think that, to square the circle, Locke had to claim that slaves were “justifiably enslaved becauses they were captives taken in a just war.” The quote is from Laslett’s footnote on pp.284-5 of his edition of the 2nd Treatise. That Locke was forced into what looks to us like such a transparently absurd assertion is, I think, evidence for how strongly committed he was to the natural equality thesis. Waldron, in his God, Locke and Equality (ch. 7) also thinks there is a flat inconsistency between Locke’s involvement in American slavery and the doctrines of the 2nd Treatise.


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 5:53 pm

To Mox: It depends on what you mean by “writing that way”. Basically, Foner applies a class analysis to the Republican Party. The workers, farmers and small-scale industrialists oriented to the Radical Republican wing of the party, while the big bourgeoisie sought compromise. Lincoln was closer to the compromise faction, but was not above appointing Radicals to important posts. It a matter of historical record that the Republican Party sought mainly to prevent slavery from being permitted in the western states rather than being uprooted in the South as demanded by the Radicals. As I have stated previously, the Emancipation Proclamation was prompted by the exegencies of warfare rather than upon some principled opposition to slavery. Even James McPherson admits this. Southern victories in 1862 convinced the European powers that the Confederacy might succeed. In his book on Antietam, McPherson says England was moving close to that point, so was France. By making slavery a war issue, Lincoln hoped to forestall an alliance between Europe and the Confederacy. In other words, the abolition of slavery was completely contingent on geopolitical questions. In some ways, the vacillating back and forth is reminiscent of the liberal bourgeoisie’s relationship to Hitler before WWII.

To Chris: Of course there is an inconsistency between Locke’s highminded treatises on freedom and his support for chattel slavery. This is exactly why it was necessary for Marxism to prevail against the Enlightenment. It is only by establishing the economic basis for freedom (abolition of private property, including chattel slavery) that political freedom can be won. Marxism brings the Enlightenment to fruition while simultaneously abolishing it.


Chris Bertram 03.04.05 at 6:43 pm

Louis, there’s a lot of sloganizing packed in there which I won’t begin to address. Just to note that I think your history is problematic. Enlightenment thinkers were often much more hostile to human inequality, racism, slavery and colonialism than were their 19th-century successors, including, sometimes, Marx. An opportunity for me to plug Sankar Muthu’s “Enlightenment Against Empire”: .


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 7:10 pm

Kant, “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime”: “The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. The difference between the two races is thus a substantial one: it appears to be just as great in respect to the faculties of the mind as in color.”

Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, Query XIV: “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

Montesquieu, “The Spirit of Laws”: “You will find in the climates of the north, peoples with few vices, many virtues, sincerity and truthfulness. Approach the south, you will think you are leaving morality itself, the passions become more vivacious and multiply crimes… The heat can be so excessive that the body is totally without force. The resignation passes to the spirit and leads people to be without curiosity, nor the desire for noble enterprise.”

Voltaire, “Lettres d’ Annabed”: “It is a serious question among them whether [the Africans] are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything.”


Chris Bertram 03.04.05 at 7:59 pm

So, Louis, I advance a claim about how the attitudes of some 18th-century thinkers _compare_ to those of their 19th-century successors on a range of issues and you respond with 4 quotations, isolated from their context, which prove … what?

(The one from Montesquieu, btw, doesn’t even appear to support your case! It is probably about the effects of environment.)


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 8:22 pm

The quotes prove that Enlightment figures were backward on race. These quotations and many more can be found in “Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader” by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze. The interesting question, of course, is why you don’t find this kind of naked racism in Karl Marx or Engels’s writings. (This is not to say that they haven’t been charged with racism on account of scattered backward comments in their private correspondence.) There are two reasons for this, I believe. The Englightenment thinkers tended to adopt the class outlook of the bourgeoisie whose prejudices corresponded to the real material need to maintain empire and slavery. Even at the height of the French Revolution, the Haitian rebels got short shrift from the new democratic government. For its part, Great Britain only moved against slavery as a way to undermine French commercial interests in the Western Hemisphere.

The other important thing to take note of is that Marx and Engels embraced materialism. Once you proceed on the basis that history advances on the basis of changes in the mode of production, it is much easier to dump racialist essentialism of the sort found in Hume, Kant et al.


Chris Bertram 03.04.05 at 8:43 pm

Backward, forward, whatever. Personally I don’t read such people as misguided gropers towards the true end of history.

Like I said, I made a comparative claim, and none of the thinkers you list remarks from held systematic views remotely akin to those of, say, Gobineau.

As for “materialism”, Montesquieu’s environmentalism surely qualifies him! Not “dialectical” enough for you I suspect….


Rob 03.04.05 at 8:49 pm


this is ridiculous. Even if individual enlightenment figures were racists, that tells us nothing about whether commitment to the values of the enlightement implies racism. If I were to find racist tropes in individual marxist thinkers, would that mean that marxists were necessarily racists? No, quite clearly not.


Louis Proyect 03.04.05 at 9:03 pm

Rob, the Enlightment surely was about challenging feudal backwardness. It is to the credit of people such as Diderot that they sought to overthrow the power of the lord and the bishop.

However, since the Enlightenment was basically the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie, it was almost inevitable that it adopted a hostile view toward the working class and nonwhites, especially in the colonial world.

Looking at the process historically, ideology becomes ever more progressive as the aspiring new ruling class becomes more and more propertyless. That is why the Russian Revolution was far more willing to attack privilege at its root than any previous social revolution. The people on the barricades had nothing to lose.


Donald Johnson 03.04.05 at 10:24 pm

As someone too ignorant to have firm opinions (not that this always stops me), I feel qualified to referee this little quarrel. Some observations–

1. I didn’t know it was controversial to say that most famous Enlightenment figures were racist. I think I’ve seen Louis’s quotes or similar ones before, and every American knows or should know Jefferson was a racist.

2. It is at least possible that widespread racism in Enlightenment figures might be telling us something about Enlightenment ideas.

3. On the other hand, if Locke was a racist, one could argue that this explains his defense of slavery and that the rest of his political philosophy can be safely separated from his unfortunate views about non-white people. I’m not saying this is correct. I wouldn’t know. You probably aren’t going to settle such an issue in a blog comment section, but please try. It’s educational.

4. Like most naive folk, I don’t mind the use of words like “backwards” when referring to the thinking of otherwise brilliant people who were racist.

5. My impression of the Russian Revolution is that one of the areas where it went wrong was in privileging the vanguard party’s views over the actual needs of the poor (most Russians). Thus you get catastrophic famines like that under “war communism”.


Javier 03.05.05 at 12:27 am

However, since the Enlightenment was basically the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie, it was almost inevitable that it adopted a hostile view toward the working class and nonwhites, especially in the colonial world.

You realize that this is only going to be convincing for someone who has already adopted Marxism? People like me who believe that political and social ideas aren’t necessarily determined by class interests will find your claims to be pretty implausible. Many Enlightenment ideas, in my view, can potentially transcend the class interests of those who originally articulated and support them. I have in mind the notion of the moral equality and dignity of all human beings, the importance of basic liberties and rights, the idea that government must be bound by the rule of law and based in popular consent, and so on. I think it is deeply mistaken to view these ideas as simply “bourgeoisie” ideas designed to mask or advance class interests, if that’s what you’re in fact implying.

It may be true that the ideas I listed above were only partially supported by many Enlightenment thinkers and these thinkers have inconsistencies in their accounts. Nonetheless, we are justified in calling them Enlightenment ideas because they originated or were developed in Enlightenment thought, even if only haltingly and gradually.


Rob 03.05.05 at 12:58 am

Yeah, what Donald and Javier said.
Appeals to the truth of marxism when what is essentially at question is the truth of marxism are not very helpful. If Enlightenment ideals – the rule of law, limited private property rights, popular sovereignty etc – are inherently racist, show the ideals are inherently racist. The fact that some Enlightenment thinkers were racist does not necessarily impugn those ideals.


Louis Proyect 03.05.05 at 1:10 am

To Javier: I really have no expectations that I will convince you or anybody else here of anything. I am just here to exchange ideas. The problem with the Enlightenment is not the ideas (with the obvious exception of the racial essentialism), but their clash with the social and economic reality of capitalism. The Enlightment is very much tied to the idea of property rights. If there’s anything that’s obvious at this point in history, it is that private property is inimical to freedom and equality.

To Rob: The only thing racist in the Enlightenment is what it says about Africans (and Jews to some extent.) All the rest about freedom, equality and democracy is okay as far as it goes. It is just at odds with the capitalist system which allows one class of people to rule over another by dint of their ownership and control of the means of production. Until there is economic democracy, there can be no genuine democracy.

Comments on this entry are closed.