Classical liberalism, in the sense of the liberalism of the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a powerfully progressive force. It was the ideological expression of the need of the bourgeoisie to put paid to the social-political vestiges of kings and aristocrats and to create a society in it’s own image, and one in which the repressive power of the state could be reduced to the minimum necessary. Thus liberals fought, often with great success, for universal suffrage, formal equality before the law, freedom of expression, improvements in the status of women, a military under civilian control, and limitation of police powers. All good things, compared to what had gone before.
A progressive ideology that basis itself on a progressive economic system becomes reactionary when that system has exhausted itself. Compare the progressive role of Christianity in the fight against the Roman slave system to Catholicism’s reactionary role during the downfall of the feudal monarchies. In the same way, when capitalism itself became reactionary—that is, when it could no longer maintain itself without massive wars and destruction of infrastructure and ever-increasing measures of repression to defend its ever-greater difficulties in distributing human wants (wealth inequality)—liberalism transformed from a progressive ideology to one that simply provided a cover for the worst crimes of capitalism.
We could look at the criminal role of liberalism in the Russian revolution, or its craven role Germany in the 30s, but really, we don’t have to look any further than the US. From the massive labor battles of the 1930s to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, liberalism in the form of its official spokesmen (politicians and journalists) has specialized in fighting tooth-and-nail against any moves toward equality, and, insofar as their efforts failed, loudly claiming credit for instituting them. It’s like. after being robbed at gunpoint, you bragged about your generous donation. When the US ruling elite needs to take a repressive step but fears that its “right-wing” elements will generate too much popular outrage, it turns to its “left-wing” side to carry it out. We all remember how it turned to Obama to cut SNAP benefits, protect Wall Street gangsters, launch new wars, and begin a massive assault on immigrants. Going further back, it was the “New Deal” Roosevelt who asked congress for the right to draft striking workers and force them to labor. The “Fair Deal” Truman invoked Taft-Hartley 12 times within the first year of its passage. Permit me to quote from Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis:
“It is an irrefutable fact that the New Deal-Fair Deal liberals were the chief authors and sponsors of the first federal laws to (1) make mere opinion a crime (the Smith Act of 1940, rushed through by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Roosevelt); (2) establish concentration (detention) camps in America where political dissenters can be imprisoned without trial during “national emergency” (McCaarran-Kilgore Internal Security Act of 1950); and (3) outlaw a political party (Communist Control Act of 1954).”
The last, by the way, was sponsored by Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who “won his spurs” by collaborating with the Stalinists to destroy the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
In the end, the first and third of these acts were used (with, it must be admitted, the cooperation of the union bureaucrats) to essentially neuter the American union movement and leave it helpless in the face of the massive, direct attacks on the unions that began under Reagan.
Today, what goes under the name of liberalism directs its energy toward preventing independent action of the working class, spreading ignorance, sowing division, and, above all, trying to convince us that the hollow shell of liberalism is the only alternative to the even more reactionary elements.
Heads up: it isn’t.