Liberalism must be defeated

Liberalism means private property. Socialists can't tolerate it.

Matt McManus, writing for Jacobin, argues that Socialists Don’t Want to Destroy Liberalism. We Want to Go Beyond It. Predictably, this has sparked some significant criticism among socialists — in particular, because the article takes sides in a longstanding controversy within socialist traditions over the role of bourgeois individualized rights. On that point I am sympathetic with the critics, but instead of litigating that controversy I’d like to make two other points that I think should be uncontroversial among socialists:

  1. Liberalism — historically, theoretically, and in the popular understanding of the term — entails a right to private property. It involves other things as well, but when you talk about liberalism, you are necessarily talking about private property.

  2. Socialism is absolutely at odds with private property rights. Abolishing them is its central political fight. Insofar as you are not contesting private property rights, you are not engaged in socialism.

From here I think the implication is pretty direct: socialists must destroy liberalism. You can insist that socialists are in some abstract sense fulfilling the fights for “equality” and “freedom” mobilized by the French Revolution or invoke particular values and ideas that liberals will be sympathetic to, of course; but it is quite another thing to insist that socialism is not in conflict with liberalism-qua-liberalism, an ideology that cannot be somehow bracketed off from its characteristic defense of private property.

For some readers, I have no doubt that this will seem like a mostly pedantic or academic point. “The headline said that socialists don’t want to destroy liberalism, when it should have said that socialists don’t want to destroy particular things about liberalism. So what?”

But insofar as semantics matter at all, I think that this distinction is politically crucial. Private property maintains its ideological hegemony not just by declaring its superiority to socialism, but also by insisting that it is, perhaps, not even at odds with socialism — that the aspirations of socialism are largely compatible with private property, or that this central conflict is really just some second-order or boutique concern, the obsession of sectarians and utopians.

And in our discourse, this logic is routinely expressed as a de-escalation of conflict between socialism and liberalism. If for example I insist that Elizabeth Warren’s healthcare plan was a decisively liberal plan in its retreat from the abolition of the private insurance industry, I will inevitably be told that I am dealing in a false dichotomy, and that her plan was actually “progressive”, a designation that transcends liberalism and socialism’s petty dispute over private property. Republican-aligned critics of socialism, meanwhile, routinely lump it in with liberalism in their polemic against a nebulous “left” and insist on a slippery slope between the two — even when it comes to private property. In both of these cases, the rhetorical function is clear: to minimize real disagreements over private property between liberals and socialists.

For this reason, our opposition to private property rights must take the form of distinguishing and opposing our politics to liberalism. Not only is this the only conceptually coherent approach, it is the only way to pragmatically contest the predominant apologetics of private property. This does not of course imply that we need to vilify particular liberals or that we cannot seek various persuasive points of common ground — but the end of private property means the end of liberalism, and socialists have to be direct about what we mean.