‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ John Tenniel (1871)

Liberal and illiberal delusions

Mike Macnair argues that capitalism cannot escape from the battles of liberals and conservatives

On June 27 the Financial Times published an article reporting a long interview with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Most of the report is a completely predictable defence of Putin’s domestic, ‘near-abroad’ and international policies against the claims of the ‘west’. One particular set of comments sent shivers down the spines of many western media commentators:

The Russian leader detects a shift in the political balance of power from traditional western liberalism to national populism, fuelled by public resentment about immigration, multiculturalism and secular values at the expense of religion.

“Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values?” asks Mr Putin, dismissing Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses. Similarly, in the Russian president’s view, liberal ideology has “outlived its purpose”.

This is the FT’s spin on the interview. The actual transcript was published on its website and, though it certainly contains the arguments in question, the additional context makes them, while certainly conservative, significantly less radical than the presentation in the FT report:

[Putin:] How long will Russia remain a stable country? The longer, the better. Because very many other things and its position in the world depend on stability, on internal political stability. Ultimately, the wellbeing of the people depends, possibly primarily, on stability.

One of the reasons, the internal reason for the Soviet Union’s collapse was that life was difficult for the people, whose take-home wages were very small. The shops were empty, and the people lost the intrinsic desire to preserve the state.

They thought that it could not get worse, no matter what happened. It turned out that life became worse for very many people, especially at the beginning of the 1990s, when the social protection and healthcare systems collapsed and industry was crumbling. It could be ineffective, but at least people had jobs. After the collapse, they lost them. Therefore, you should look at each particular case separately.

What is happening in the west? What is the reason for the Trump phenomenon, as you said, in the US? What is happening in Europe as well? The ruling elites have broken away from the people. The obvious problem is the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people.

Of course, we must always bear this in mind. One of the things we must do in Russia is never to forget that the purpose of the operation and existence of any government is to create a stable, normal, safe and predictable life for the people and to work towards a better future.

There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable.

When the migration problem came to a head, many people admitted that the policy of multiculturalism is not effective and that the interests of the core population should be considered - although those who have run into difficulties because of political problems in their home countries need our assistance as well. That is great, but what about the interests of their own population, when the number of migrants heading to western Europe is not just a handful of people, but thousands or hundreds of thousands? …

… the liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected. What rights are these? Every crime must have its punishment.

So, the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. Or take the traditional values. I am not trying to insult anyone, because we have been condemned for our alleged homophobia as it is. But we have no problems with LGBT persons. God forbid, let them live as they wish. But some things do appear excessive to us.

They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles. I cannot even say exactly what genders these are - I have no notion. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.

Lionel Barber: Does that include - this is very important, like you say - the end of this liberal idea, because - what else did you say - uncontrolled immigration, open borders, definitely, as you say, diversity as an organising principle in society? What else do you think is just finished in terms of the liberal idea? And would you say - if I could just add - that religion therefore must play an important role in terms of national culture and cohesiveness?

Putin: It should play its current role. It [religion] cannot be pushed out of this cultural space. We should not abuse anything.

Russia is an Orthodox Christian nation, and there have always been problems between Orthodox Christianity and the Catholic world. This is exactly why I will now say a few words about Catholics. Are there any problems there? Yes, there are, but they cannot be overexaggerated and used for destroying the Roman Catholic church itself. This is what cannot be done …

A bit later, towards the end of the interview, Putin in a certain sense backtracks from the line of the ‘liberal idea’ being “obsolete”:

Henry Foy: … some of the themes you were referring to would echo in people such as [former Trump advisor] Steve Bannon, and Mr Trump himself, and the groups in Europe who have come to power. Do you think if the end of the liberal idea is over, is now the time of the ‘illiberals’? And do you see more and more allies growing around the world to your way of seeing the human existence at the moment?

Putin: You know, it seems to me that purely liberal or purely traditional ideas have never existed. Probably, they did once exist in the history of humankind, but everything very quickly ends in a deadlock if there is no diversity. Everything starts to become extreme one way or another.

Various ideas and various opinions should have a chance to exist and manifest themselves, but at the same time interests of the general public, those millions of people and their lives, should never be forgotten. This is something that should not be overlooked ...

For this reason, I am not a fan of quickly shutting, tying, closing, disbanding everything, arresting everybody or dispersing everybody. Of course not. The liberal idea cannot be destroyed either; it has the right to exist and it should even be supported in some things. But you should not think that it has the right to be the absolute dominating factor.

Putin is in substance advocating an explicit nationalism, accompanied by a strong role for organised religion and - going along with it - a marked gender traditionalism. This last, while it is immediately directed against the current ‘fashionable fear’, trans rights, includes a sideline of defence of the Catholic church’s child sex abuse cover-ups, and carries with it an underlying patriarchalist logic.

Not new

In one sense none of this is really very new. One can hear such things being said by Tory leadership candidates, and it is the small change of articles in the Express, Mail, Telegraph and so on. It was the politics appealed to by Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” speech in 1969, and the politics of the ‘Monday Club’ Conservative right caucus (disaffiliated from the party over racism in 2001).1

The context Putin offers for his argument is for anti-liberalism to begin with the collapse of the USSR and the Yeltsin administration, and the economic disasters experienced by the Russian population under Yeltsin. Putin rightly says that the population “thought that it could not get worse, no matter what happened. It turned out that life became worse for very many people ...” He then draws an analogy between this failure, and in the west “the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people”.

It is then sharply visible that, while the underlying diagnosis is economic, the issues Putin’s anti-liberalism addresses are actually not economic: migrants as a threat of crime and a threat to cultural coherence, gender radicals as a threat to “the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population”.

In this context, why the idea that “the so-called liberal idea ... has outlived its purpose” or “become obsolete”? Putin appears from the interview to be a perfectly ordinary nationalist-religious conservative, for whom liberalism would never have had a purpose or a role from which it could “become obsolete”. His background as a KGB officer before 1991 would be perfectly consistent with this view, since the ‘official’ police ideology of the Soviet regime was nationalist, patriarchalist, etc.2

The answer may well be that, from Putin’s point of view, the ‘point’ of liberalism was its role in the 1980s-90s: that is, to overthrow Soviet bureaucratic ‘socialism’, its nationalist imitators in the ‘third world’, and European cold war social democracy. On this approach, it might be argued that ‘we’ (the world’s rulers) only needed liberalism to get rid of socialism and, now ‘we’ have got rid of socialism, ‘we’ can and should turn to nationalist authoritarianism as the normal political regime.

If this is what Putin means, however, his response to Foy showed an unambiguous retreat from the idea. Putin in this last response sounds a lot more sensible than Trump, or the other right-populists, who really do imagine a society without what Tories have historically called ‘faction’: ie, liberalism and other forms of dissent.


Putin claims that his conservatism represents “the overwhelming majority of the people”. So, of course, do the US Republican right and the Tories. Thus, just for example, Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 claimed that “the Tory Party can recover by mobilising the support of Britain’s natural conservative majority, including Labour’s working class voters”.3 Or, in the USA, compare political commentator David Brooks in 2005 on why Congressional obstruction will not work for Democrats:

Bill Clinton only got 43% of the vote. There was a natural conservative majority in this country. The problem for Republicans then was they weren’t voting for Republicans. They were voting for Democrats. And so they only needed to win conservatives to the Republican side to win a majority.4

Nor is any of this new. The Tory language of ‘faction’ in the 18th century proceeded on the basis that the Whigs were an illegitimate minority, which had somehow captured the levers of power.5

The problem is that, in spite of the claim to the ‘natural conservative majority’, conservatives turn out to be decidedly unfriendly to free elections. The Putin administration has displayed this in the last weeks - banning opposition candidates from local elections, imprisoning protestors against this fix for ‘unauthorised demonstrations’ and, most recently, the suspicion of poisoning an opposition leader in gaol.6

Not unique. The Republicans have recently been celebrating a US Supreme Court decision, which protects their stunning gerrymandering activities from judicial interference.7 Clear British examples are mainly older, with reorganisations of local government for the benefit of Conservative control under Ted Heath and, more spectacularly, under Margaret Thatcher - the Cameron and May administrations have merely imposed financial squeeze and privatisations, though the 2010-15 Con-Lib Dem coalition aimed to reduce the number of MPs and in doing so skew the balance in favour of the Tories.8

If they have the natural majority behind them, what do they have to be afraid of?

In reality, the natural conservative majority is a delusion. The gerrymandering and similar operations arise because liberalism can win a temporary majority, just as conservatism can also win a temporary majority.


Martin Wolf, responding to Putin’s interview in the FT (July 3), argues:

All liberals share a belief in human agency. They trust in the capacity of human beings to decide things for themselves. This belief has radical implications. It implies the right to make their own plans, to express their own opinions and to participate in public life. These attitudes were realised in the system we call ‘liberal democracy’.

Liberals share a belief that agency depends on possession of economic and political rights. Institutions are needed to protect those rights - independent legal systems, above all. But agency also depends on markets to coordinate independent economic actors ...

Wolf goes on to argue that liberalism promotes economic growth - using a stunning artificial set of synchronic comparisons for 2018, and ignoring Putin’s fundamental point, that the effect of Yeltsin’s ‘liberal’ regime was an enormous impoverishment of Russians in the 1990s. Wolf admits that liberalism has problems “over their ability to absorb immigrants and manage inequality”. Liberalism, he then argues, “requires constant adaptation and adjustment. Mr Putin has no idea what this means: he cannot conceive of a social order that does not rest on force and fraud. We know better.”

This is a stunning claim. On July 4 the British navy, operating out of Gibraltar, seized an Iranian-flagged tanker - an action taken on US advice and under a fraudulent claim of implementing European Union sanctions against Syria. Both force and fraud. The Iranians’ reprisal action (lawful under classical international law9) has been denounced by the press, including the FT, as ‘state piracy’ - more fraud.

It is the latest stage in a campaign of force and fraud in the Middle East, which has included the infliction of pure destruction on Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria: the first on grounds well known to be fraudulent, the last three under pretences of ‘humanitarian intervention’ - which, however, kill very many more people than the atrocities which were supposed to justify intervention.

Alongside this persistent use of force there has been, since 2005, a campaign of fraudulent redefinition of ‘anti-Semitism’ designed to sanctify the state of Israel’s claim to ‘secure borders’ and to delegitimise campaigners for Palestinian rights and against US and ‘western’ Middle East warfare. Since 2015, this malicious campaign of defamation has been deployed by the British advertising-funded media against the Labour left on an escalating scale.

No, Mr Wolf, liberals do not “know better”. The regime they operate was perhaps something more than a regime of ‘force and fraud’ when the concessions they made in the 1950s-70s were in place, and related to much more real economic development than there has been in the recent past. Maybe (as a good many semi-left economists think) the concessions enabled the real economic development. Or maybe (as ‘falling rate of profit’ theorists and others have argued) the real economic development of the 1950s-70s, facilitated by the capital losses of 1939-47, allowed space for concessions to the working class and to colonial nationalists.

But, either way, in the recent past this has not been on offer. For the last 30 years, the liberals can be well characterised in the words of the speech Roman historian Tacitus put in the mouth of the Caledonian fighter, Calgacus, in 83/84 AD: “Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant” (To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false justifications, they call public order; and where they make a depopulation, they call it peace).10

Wolf’s argument works, to the extent that it works at all, by writing out of existence the forcible and fraudulent operations of the USA and its allies internationally. The linkage between liberalism at home and force and fraud abroad is no novelty. It can be seen in the Whig administrations of the 18th century, in Lord Palmerston’s ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the mid-19th, and in the ‘Liberal imperialists’ of the 1890s and after.11

In reality, of course, force and fraud are not absent at home either. Force lies below the surface in the routine operations of the police, prisons, bailiffs and private security operators. Wolf would no doubt regard this as “independent legal systems”. But this particular ‘independent legal system’ absolutely routinely sells justice to the highest bidder, and denies justice, in violation of the Magna Carta, through the ‘free market in legal services’. Fraud has displayed itself particularly spectacularly - to take only a single example - in the Liberal Democrats’ pretence that they would abolish tuition fees in their 2010 election campaign, and then joining a coalition with the Conservatives, with Vince Cable in particular promoting the sale and denial of justice through tribunal fees - to the point that the scam was unacceptable even to the senior judiciary.12

Again, there is nothing new here. The working classes - artisans, not just wage-workers - turned out in large numbers in support of the campaign for parliamentary reform which led to the Reform Act 1832.13 What they got from the resulting Whig government was … the 1834 ‘New Poor Law’, which cut ‘outdoor relief’ and medical aid, and generalised the principle of the workhouse.

The lesson was learnt by the founders of the left wing of Chartism: that the alliance with the Whigs (later Liberals) was untrustworthy. But also, by the 1840s, some Tories could manoeuvre to win working class backing against the Liberals through support for legislation limiting working hours. Working class Toryism continued down to Thatcher’s time, and May and Johnson have been attempting to revive it.

Western solidarity

Colin Foster of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (more accurately, Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism) in the July 3 issue of its paper Solidarity (more accurately, Western Solidarity) responds to Putin’s claims with the belief that his arguments have some support on the left:

… the outcry against liberalism has been joined by many who think themselves on the left. From the platform of the ‘Full Brexit’ pressure group, RMT member Eddie Dempsey declared that “the working class” “hates the liberal left”, and is right to do so ...

He counterposes to this what he claims is Marx’s and Engels’ unequivocal support for the 19th-century liberals against their conservative opponents, citing an article of September 1847, which Marx then quoted in 1865 in breaking off relations with the Lassallean JB von Schweitzer’s Sozial-Demokrat. From this reference, he jumps back to the Communist manifesto’s critiques of ‘feudal socialism’ and ‘True Socialism’, and the 1847 article again.

As usual, this is a one-sided selection to support the AWL’s pro-liberal stance. From the time of 1848 and after, missing is the celebrated 1850 ‘Address of the Central Committee of the Communist League’ by Marx and Engels:

We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to. At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organisation in which general social democratic phrases prevail, while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented ...

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election, the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory.14

The story on the 1860s is equally only half a story. Foster cites Marx and Engels breaking off relations with Schweitzer’s paper over Lassalle’s and Schweitzer’s collaboration with Bismarck against the German liberals. But he leaves out the Marx-Engels criticisms of Wilhelm Liebknecht and his co-thinkers for participation in the Saxon liberal Volkspartei, ‘Kleinstaaterei’ liberalism, and their very limited practical support for the First International.15


Duncan Thomas, writing on the website of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century, argues that (to quote the introduction) “Boris Johnson’s election signals a desperate new stage in the long death of British conservatism”.16 He states:

There was a time, not so long ago, that the Conservative Party prided itself on prudence, statecraft and long-term strategic governance. This is a party of the rural, monarchist aristocracy that not only survived the vast social and economic transformations heralded by industrial capitalism, free-trade liberalism, universal suffrage and social democracy, but actually flourished under circumstances to which it seemed hugely ill-suited.

But now it is in decline, and both its divisions over Europe generally and the Brexit impasse in particular are products of that decline.

The mistake in this analysis is the characterisation of the Conservative Party as (merely) “a party of the rural monarchist aristocracy” and one “ill-suited” to industrial capitalism, and so on. The reality is that what became Toryism emerged around 1680 as a reaction to what was already beginning to be called (as a term of abuse) Whiggism: that is, in the process of capitalist modernisation. The same is true of the emergence of American forms of conservatism, of the French Counter-Enlightenment/Party of Order, of the Vatican’s campaign to develop anti-Semitic social-Christianism in the late 19th century, and so on.17 None of these forms have any real resemblance to the political dynamics of pre-capitalist societies. Conservatism and its congeners, Liberalism and its equivalents, are the inseparably conjoined twins of capitalist politics.

A consequence is that Thomas’s glee over the crisis of the Tory Party is not merely unrealistic in immediate politics, but unduly optimistic at the strategic level. If the Tory Party is knocked out over Brexit, it will merely be replaced by some new right-populist party, because the underlying dynamics of capitalism throw up both liberalism and conservatism in politics.

I have made the point before that both trends are natural ideologies of capitalism. Liberalism ideologises the market sphere, of which Marx said: “This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”18

Conservatism ideologises the other side of the coin: the despotism of the factory, and the aspect of production where

The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no ‘free agent’, that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him, “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited”.19

Both sides are necessary aspects of capitalism. Nor is the second sphere, the despotism of production, restricted to large-scale industry: it was small-scale capitalist production in the 17th and 18th centuries which gave us the doctrines that the master could use ‘reasonable force’ to discipline his servants, and the crimes of conspiracy to raise wages and reduce working hours.20 It is the development of generalised commodity production, and the dominance of the circuit M‑C‑P‑Cʹ‑Mʹ, which produces the two-sided natural ideologies.

This circumstance means that, on the one hand, conservatism, for all its pretences of national solidarity, can never break with ‘economic freedom’, even if it becomes totalitarian, as in the Nazi regime. And, on the other hand, liberalism can never break with the authoritarianism of the workplace - witness, as merely a small example, Vince Cable’s scheme to render employment rights unenforceable by imposing fees.

The consequence is that a left which attempts to make a strategic bloc with conservative nationalism against the liberals - as the Morning Star and the part of the left influenced by it has attempted over Brexit - will find itself betrayed and going down.

But for the workers’ movement and the left to attempt to commit itself to the permanent victory of liberalism over conservatism is also a delusion. And the result will be that, when the liberals produce impoverishment, a left which clings to them will find itself betrayed and going down.


  1. On the ‘silent majority’ speech there is a useful article by Lance Selfa: http://socialistworker.org/2018/11/08/1968-the-nixon-backlash-and-the-silent-majority. Monday Club: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Monday_Club.↩︎

  2. R Pethybridge The social prelude to Stalinism London 1974; DR Shearer Policing Stalin’s socialism New Haven CT 2009. Though these books are on the inter-war period, given the general socio-political attitudes of police - eg, AM Colman, LP Gorman, ‘Conservatism, dogmatism and authoritarianism in British police officers’ Sociology Vol 16, pp1-11 (1982) - there is no reason to suppose change between then and 1989.↩︎

  3. ‘Target moral majority, ex leader tells Tories’ The Times December 13 2004.↩︎

  4. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/political-analysts-discuss-president-bushs-inaugural↩︎

  5. Some useful references in M Skjönsberg, ‘Lord Bolingbroke’s theory of party and opposition’ Historical Journal Vol 59, pp947-73 (2016).↩︎

  6. ‘Moscow police arrest more than 1,000 protesters ahead of election’ The Guardian July 27; ‘Alexei Navalny discharged from hospital against wishes of doctor’, July 29.↩︎

  7. ‘Supreme Court’s approval of partisan gerrymandering raises 2020 election stakes’ Los Angeles Times June 27.↩︎

  8. For Heath, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_Government_Act_1972; for Thatcher, and the more recent developments, see T Crewe, ‘The strange death of municipal England’ London Review of Books December 15 2016; cf also K Livingstone, If voting changed anything they’d abolish it London 1988.↩︎

  9. S MacCoby, ‘Reprisals as a measure of redress short of war’ Cambridge Law Journal Vol 2 pp60-73 (1924) discusses the classical position and the early stages of the evolution of the modern position, which is also discussed by S Darcy, ‘Retaliation and reprisal’ in M Weller (ed) Oxford handbook of the use of force in international law (Oxford 2015) chapter 40.↩︎

  10. Agricola chapter 30.↩︎

  11. 18th century Whigs: B Simms, Three victories and a defeat (London 2008) has the narrative. There is a convenient summary of Palmerston’s career at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_John_Temple,_3rd_Viscount_Palmerston. For ‘Liberal imperialists’ see HCG Mathew The Liberal imperialists Oxford 1973.↩︎

  12. See my discussion in ‘Rhetoric and political realities’ Weekly Worker August 3 2017.↩︎

  13. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Days_of_May.↩︎

  14. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.html.↩︎

  15. R Morgan The German Social Democrats and the First International 1864-1872 Cambridge 1965; RH Dominick III Wilhelm Liebknecht and the founding of the German Social Democratic Party Chapel Hill NC 1982.↩︎

  16. www.rs21.org.uk/2019/07/24/daunted-and-doomed.↩︎

  17. On the Tories there is a convenient compressed summary from the literature in SJ Owen Restoration theatre and crisis (Oxford 1996) chapter 2. On American conservatism, see, for example, DB Bruce Jr The rhetoric of conservatism San Marino, CA 1982. Counter-enlightenment and the French Catholic right: DM McMahon Enemies of the enlightenment: the French counter-enlightenment and the making of modernity Oxford 2001. Papal anti-Semitic ‘social Christianism’: DI Kertzer Unholy war: the Vatican’s role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism London 2002.↩︎

  18. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.html.↩︎

  19. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.html.↩︎

  20. For ‘reasonable correction’, see M Foster A report of some proceedings ... Dublin 1791, p263. On the conspiracy to raise wages, etc, see my article, ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique Vol 39, pp53-82 (at pp60-65).↩︎