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Liberalism: A Counter-History

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  550 ratings  ·  61 reviews
In this definitive historical investigation, Italian author and philosopher Domenico Losurdo argues that from the outset liberalism, as a philosophical position and ideology, has been bound up with the most illiberal of policies: slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and snobbery.

Narrating an intellectual history running from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centur
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published April 1st 2011 by Verso (first published 2005)
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Gabriel Avocado
holy shit wow. this book took me about two months to finish and when i finally reached the last sentence i sighed a very heavy sigh of relief. this is a rather dense, difficult book so i will try to sum up my feelings as succinctly as possible:

fuck de toucquville

but in case you wanted something more in depth, heres the longer version:

liberalism is full of contradictions and it has historically been able to correct these contradictions, which is partly why it is such a difficult concept to define
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
i try to fish out immediate political lessons from philosophy books if i can. the precise position of one of the many dozens of thinkers losurdo mentions in the book doesn't interest me as much, and i can barely keep track of books like this unless i'm taking detailed notes. which i didn't in this case. i'm too busy and tired. just reading this goddamn book took me six months.

losurdo's chronicle of liberalism's contradictions (the 'racial/spatial delimitation of the community of the free') and
Jun 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, history
Liberalism was arguably born when the Netherlands gained freedom from Philip II of Spain and its wealthy commercial class took political control. While the Dutch celebrated their liberation from the shackles and restraints of the ancien regime and its mediaeval values, what they prized in particular was their freedom to engage without restraint in the creation of wealth through their own colonies and their hold over the slave trade of that time. The liberty they idealized and proclaimed was thus ...more
tom bomp
Jun 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Great book. Not always a coherent narrative but goes through a lot of key points relating to liberalism' s consistent racism and authoritarianism outside the self declared freemen. Shows how the most murderous episodes in colonialism were justified and applauded by key liberal figures. Has problems defining liberalism exactly, but as he says this is down to its incredible flexibility and the conflict between the space of freemen where liberal ideals hold and the space outside where freemen are j ...more
Jan 09, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I am very torn about giving this a 3 or a 4. I think 3.5 would have been ideal. In terms of importance and my desire to have lots of people read it(especially useless bien pensant types in America, Britain, France, and those wahhabi-humanist nations I like to jokingly conflate and call 'Nethersweden') I would rank it a 5.

The good:

Myth busting on an epic scope. Explodes most of a public school education in the anglosphere.

Denies from liberalism is sanctimonious privilege of claiming to have been
Apr 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Losurdo seeks to answer the question of why believers in Liberalism oversaw the racialization of slavery and the destruction of worker’s autonomy in industrialization. Liberalism therefore granted utter tyranny and began to dismantle protections granted to slaves, servants, and workers. Losurdo argues that it began in Holland as the Dutch wanted freedom of trade. It transferred to slaveowners believing themselves to be the natural holders of liberal ideals, since the wealth and leisure of people ...more
Sara Salem
Jan 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Definitely interesting because it details how liberalism emerged and how the main liberal intellectuals for the most part supported slavery and colonialism. However it goes beyond this fact by showing how and why they did so and what kinds of intellectual assumptions were embedded in liberalism that allowed these contradictions to emerge (if they are even contradictions). I enjoyed it but for some reason it didn't flow very well and was a bit repetitive. But definitely worth reading. ...more
Mar 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely fantastic. I haven't enjoyed seeing classical liberals getting annihilated by a well-read Marxist this much since Capital Vol. 1. ...more
Aug 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I remember studying political theory as an undergraduate, struggling through a canon, unsure of the terms on which it could be criticised - citing George or Marx against Locke, reading Trotsky on Machiavelli. This is a book that would have been valuable at the time - indeed, it looks like the English translation was published about when I would have most benefited from it! Domenico Losurdo provides a comprehensive challenge to the philosophers of liberalism, demonstrating its grand hypocrisies a ...more
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: humanities
Really stellar. A phenomenal account of the relationship between white supermacy/colonialism, capital accumulation and the development of the Liberal tradition. The only I found frustrating was that this is almost exclusively an intellectual history, confined to the written works of several authors, and although they were no doubt very influential both in terms of the development of the Liberal tradition in all of its destructive twists and turns, as I finished it I felt like I was missing a mor ...more
Liberalism: A Counter History, by Domenico Losurdo is a fascinating look at the beginnings of Liberalism and its relation to slavery. Losurdo spares no detail on each of histories most well known political philosophers, including Burke, Locke, Mill and more, and how each of these individuals thought about slavery. It would seem that slavery and Liberalism would be opposing ideals, one promoting the complete loss of personal freedom and the other supporting greater political and social freedoms. ...more
Jon Morgan
This was disappointing. The author's critique of liberalism as founded in racial and class exclusion is thoroughly documented in the writings of Locke, de Tocqueville, Mill, and many other exponents of liberalism. That said, I feel that this critique has been made elsewhere already, and the organization of this text does not so much present a history - a detailed explication of liberalism over time - as it does a litany, a rehashing and restating of the same exclusionary biases of liberalism fou ...more
Jun 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
An exhaustive study of the really obvious, though clearly not obvious enough to a lot of people. And when I say exhaustive I really mean it, incredibly impressive amounts of research and just appalling quotations from the kinds of people (Locke, Adam Smith, Bentham, all of the Founding Fathers) who get name dropped on a constant basis are stacked against the inhumane shit they pulled. Would highly recommend to anyone who still has faith in the "principles" that continue to dominate western thoug ...more
Gordan Karlic
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book isn't some eye opener for me, because I knew a lot of the things authors wrote.
Because of that, it wasn't that interesting to me, but somebody that isn't a historian or is really interested in the subject will find this book a really good read.
One thing I can say I didn't like was title liberalism.
The author was writing about liberalism mostly from 1760 - 1860 in the USA, GB, and France - several problems, liberalism changed a lot during that period and author (at least in my opinion)
Anndra Dunn
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A comprehensive and convincing argument against conventional perspectives on liberalism and particularly its relationship with slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. It shows how these things had a 'twin birth' in the early modern period and were entangled with it right up to the modern era, and even presaged the horrors of fascism which Losurdo links to parts of the liberal tradition (similarly to Ishay Landa's argument in The Apprentice's Sorceror). Losurdo's primary method of showing all this ...more
Sep 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
An exhaustive analysis of the il-liberalness (unliberalness? a-liberalness?) at the heart of foundational liberal thinkers, primarily through their handling of slavery but also indentured servitude, workers' rights, and the extension of suffrage to the "wrong" people. Anyone who's read these thinkers extensively won't be surprised by the larger argument, but Losurdo has done the reader a favor in the great deal of work spent cataloging and contextualizing a vast number of examples where liberal ...more
John Victor
Jan 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
really good debunking of liberal pretensions, although its focused on race relations, which is definitely an area that needs to be examined but takes away from the broader scope this book could have otherwise i think
Sep 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: political
Do you consider yourself on the left politically? Read this and purge your liberal tendencies and ascend towards true radical thinking.

Or don't whatever I don't care about you or this.
Scott Neigh
A wide-ranging, detailed, and highly critical examination of the history of liberalism. It both engages with the ideas of liberal thinkers across various eras and examines the material context in which those ideas and thinkers existed. It centres slavery and colonialism, as well as oppression/repression of poor and working people within the metropole, and not surprisingly arrives at a very different understanding of the last few centuries than liberals themselves generally do. There are a few th ...more
May 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Best read in tandem with Ferrara's Liberty: the god that failed, Losurdo's Liberalism provides a needed alternative to the hagiographies all too common in histories of America and the liberal West at large.
Losurdo handily demonstrates how ill the West was after being poisoned by liberal ideology. Liberalism did not unite civilized peoples but divided them by nationalism and enforced it's freedoms with the soldier's bayonet and slaver's whip.
Who among us, having realized what a rotten deal libe
Otto Lehto
Jun 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is important and well-researched (with one important caveat that will be handled in a moment), but riddled with enough problems to seriously mar its standing as a definitive "counter-history" to liberalism's self-serving golden fairy-tale. (It barely deserves four stars, so this might as well be a three-star review. Consider it thus.)

The book makes the case that liberalism, far from being the counterforce to oppression, tyranny, slavery and war, has (almost) always, in fact, defended a
Vishal Misra
Feb 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Losurdo starts his investigation of liberalism with the question "what is liberalism". With clarity and incisive analysis he shows that liberalism, as defined by its pioneers, Locke, Bentham, Tocqueville, Constant, Calhoun, Washington et al is the ideology of slavery, war, the racial State and colonialism.

Historically, calls for individual freedom have been bound up in the assertion of individual property rights. This structure allowed Calhoun to declare slavery a "positive good". From this bac
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A thorough, well-based and well-written overview on the liberal tradition and its (many) contradictions. I would recommend this to anyone that is looking for arguments and historical data in order to go against the solidified idea that liberalism is the fuel that stokes the fires of equality. Losurdo brilliantly describes the main phases of the development of liberal thought, addressing most of its main authors, such as: de Tocqueville, Locke, Smith, Jefferson, Stuart Mill, and Macaulay.
Easy to
Nov 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's fitting to read this book the day after the most neoliberal congress in the nation's history has only become more neoliberal. Suddenly The Washington Consensus seems a bit of an understatement in regard to labels. In this country free market economics (which has never realized it's rather dubious promise of 'a rising tide...' by the way), is more an essential organ. Even those ostensibly on the left in this country are quick, oh so quick, to leave the economic mantra undisturbed. 'It works! ...more
Robert Maisey
This fiery polemic provides unrelenting scrutiny of the contradictions within Classical Liberal thought. Losurdo constructs his argument almost exclusively by invoking the actual words of celebrated Liberal theorists, broadly covering the period between the American revolution and WWI - focusing on England, France and the USA.

If you are not already very familiar with thinkers like De Tocqueville, Calhoun, Burke, Mill, Constant, Spencer etc then this book is going to be a running start for you if
May 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: verso
Really valuable. Particularly enlightening on how awful Locke and de Tocqueville were. In general, really good exploration of how the classical liberal tradition proclaimed by those guys, by the U.S. founders, and by other white men of property proclaiming most loudly their love and pursuit of liberty very consciously meant it only for men such as themselves and very consciously rejected the idea of liberty for people who aren't white men or who don't own land and wealth.

These guys weren't some
Ethan JP
Jun 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant expose on the horrors of liberalism. Losurdo explores the dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation which characterises the history of liberalism, showing that the development of the world’s most sickening racial, slave-state—the US—was not contrary to the early liberal thinkers’ notions of freedom and liberty, but central to them. De Tocqueville, Locke, Disraeli, Franklin and co’s attitude towards non-Europeans—and frankly, their contempt for democracy—is shocking. You could ta ...more
Paul Crider
May 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is very much a counter-history and Losurdo doesn't try to hide his one-sided agenda. As a project, that's fine, but it makes me want to give it two reviews instead of one. I'd give it four stars for liberal readers. It's important for liberals to learn about the atrocities that have been done in the name of liberalism, or at least with the aid of a liberal ideological smokescreen. Losurdo's task is to counter the hagiography that passes for objective history among school children in liberal ...more
Matheus Resende
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is an absolute must-read. It depicts the actual history of capitalism and how its partisans, the diehard defenders of human liberty have been contradictory on their defence of non-intervention from De Tocqueville to von Mises (by that, libertarians can't accuse Losurdo of being anachronistic in his analysis). Capitalism's history is all based on looting, slavery, slaughter and all sort of exploitation towards the oppressed, and it is still like this. Such a bloody history is the actual ...more
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Domenico Losurdo (14 November 1941 – 28 June 2018) was an Italian Marxist philosopher and historian better known for his critique of anti-communism, colonialism, imperialism, the European tradition of liberalism and the concept of totalitarianism.

He was director of the Institute of Philosophical and Pedagogical Sciences at the University of Urbino, where he taught history of philosophy as Dean at

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14 likes · 5 comments
“[t]he freedom of the free was the cause of the great oppression of the slaves …” 3 likes
“. . . 'science' was now called on to sanction and sanctify existing social relations. According to Malthus, it was wholly desirable that political economy be 'taught to the common people.' Thanks to it, the poor would understand that they must attribute the cause of their privations to Mother Nature or their own improvidence.” 1 likes
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