Why Is Liberalism a 'Bad' Word for the Right?

If liberalism has become a bad word for the Religious Right, there must be some virtues in the concept and practices of the ideology.

I have been attracted to critical theory all my life, and never dreamt that I would be compelled to defend liberalism, as I intend to do in this piece. Oddly, a philosophy that has been dismissed by the radical Left as tame and status-quoist, has become a term of abuse in the hands of the religious Right.

Lutyens Delhi’, the ‘Khan Market gang’, and ‘Urban Naxals’ are contemptuously dismissed as ‘libtards’. The mind boggles. What on earth is the meaning of libtard? The word is clumsy at best and incoherent at worst. The wider question is – why is the Right so scared of liberalism? 

The problem is that we simply do not know what is under attack and why. There is no one liberalism. No two liberals agree with each other. Many have launched acerbic and offensive broadsides against their ideological colleagues. There is a world of difference between the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls and the libertarianism of a Robert Nozick. Liberals are under attack by postcolonial theorists for violating their own cherished principles when it came to the societies they colonised, and the ‘natives’ they brutalised. Matters are further complicated when we recollect that the early liberalism of say, John Locke, was completely transformed after John Rawls published his much-acclaimed Theory of Justice in 1971. 

Socialist philosophers had poured scorn on every liberal principle. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, something strange happened. Liberal philosophers proceeded to take over the agenda of socialism. Today, liberals debate the concept of social justice argued for by John Rawls, equality as sovereign virtue defended by Ronald Dworkin, and minority rights/multiculturalism introduced by Will Kymlicka, along with the welfare state, social movements, the need to control the rampant oppression of the market, social democracy, and what society owes the disadvantaged.

Remains of the Berlin Wall are pictured at former Bornholmer Strasse Berlin Wall border crossing point in Berlin, Germany, October 18, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

What do cadres of the religious Right attack when they lambast liberalism – theories of constitutionalism or of cosmopolitanism and global justice? Perhaps these cadres run scared because the basic precepts of liberal philosophy show a mirror that reflects the strange beliefs of the religious Right.

Take the first precept of liberalism, liberty. Liberalism emerged as a distinct philosophy in days of the absolutist state to defend liberty. This was not new. Freedom has prompted rebellion against pre-modern tyrants and modern populists. ‘Yet freedom’ wrote Lord Byron, ‘yet thy banner, torn, but flying/Streams like the thunders-storm against the wind’. What early liberals did was to theorise liberty as a natural right that accrued to men (women got rights much later). 

The right to liberty, (which presupposed the right to life), was closely tied to the right to private property. The vindication of private property posed constraints on the power of the state to interfere with basic rights. Individual rights limited state power.

The second principle of liberalism is the limited state. Liberals have always been fearful of two aspects of democratic life – demagogues and majorities. Demagogues exercise frightening power; they can convert crowds into rampaging mobs. Majorities can run amuck, stampeding the equal rights of others to liberty.  

Voltaire. Photo: Public domain.

The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) was not precisely a liberal. He was an Enlightenment thinker. But he summed up the fear of demagogues when he reportedly wrote: If ‘they’ can make you believe absurdities ‘they’ can make you commit murder. I use the word ‘reportedly’ because Voltaire has been credited with many quotes, some of which were manufactured by others. His exact words are: ‘Truly whosoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.’ 

These fears have motivated liberals to focus on the need to contain state power through constitutions, institutions, the rule of law, independent judiciaries and individual rights. Liberty is feared by cadres of the religious Right, mainly because assertions of the basic right to liberty constrains the power of the state to do with its people as it wills. 

Further, the liberal belief in the primacy of the individual, who is mature enough to know what she wants to do with her life, galls the collective sensibility of the religious Right. They prefer to subordinate the individual to the nation, and individual rights to the state organised as the nation. The citizen is infantilised. Like a Victorian school child, she has to listen, not speak, she has to be seen, not be heard. 

What we see is a clash between the philosophy of individualism and the ideology of collectivism. Collectivism is the name given to states that are supposed to possess a mythical presence and an identity that subordinates the presence and the identity of citizens. In history, collectivism has lapsed into fascism. Liberalism tries to block this development because it poses a threat to individual liberty. Collectivists see liberals as threatening to their own agenda. 

Unfortunately, cadres of the religious Right do not realise that they are cutting the ground from beneath their feet. Institutions have been compromised, and the basic rights of individuals trampled upon. The problem is that the dynamics of authoritarianism do not distinguish between individuals. Today, it is my turn to be arrested and detained, tomorrow it might be yours. For this very reason, institutionalised power is infinitely preferable to power exercised by individuals. But the Right chooses to shoot the messenger rather than understand the message: the state is there for the individual, the individual is not for the state.  

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Of course, liberalism is not perfect but which political philosophy is? It has been attacked rightly by women, by ethnic minorities, and particularly by postcolonial theorists who see the ideology as complicit with colonialism. What is interesting, however, is the way leaders of the freedom struggle changed the text of liberalism by situating it in the context of a mass-based freedom struggle.

For one, liberals in India recognised that individual rights, so central to the philosophy of  liberals, could never be realised unless the country became independent. A collective right – the right of the nation to freedom, became a precondition for individual rights.

Dadabhai Naoroji. Photo: Public domain

Even a committed liberal like Dadabhai Naoroji was compelled to accept that the British would never treat Indians the way they treated their own citizens. The only solution was self-government.

At the 1906 session of the Indian National Congress, held amidst unrest and anger at the partition of Bengal, Naoroji, as the president of the party, famously called for Swaraj or self-government for India. His address was considered too moderate by some Congress leaders and too extreme by others.

But the message was clear: a collective and indivisible right to freedom was an essential precondition for individual rights. For liberals in the classical mould, the very idea of collective right is inimical to freedom. Till today, they are not comfortable with nationalism. For the colonised, no individual could possess rights unless the nation was free.

Second, in England, democracy in the minimal sense of universal adult franchise, came slowly and haltingly. In 1918, some women were given the right to vote, but all men got the right. Universal adult franchise for both men and women was granted only in 1928.

The 1789 revolution in France had put forth the idea of the rights of man, but women were given the right to vote only in 1944. The Indian case is different. In the second decade of the twentieth century, Gandhi brought into the Congress social groups who till then had been overlooked by the upper-class leadership. These groups enthusiastically supported Gandhi’s programme of non-cooperation and later civil disobedience, at a time many leaders of the Congress were sceptical of the efficacy of such movements. The mainstream national movement was transformed.

The recognition that formerly excluded groups had become active in the movement bore results. In 1928, Lord Birkenhead, the then Secretary of State for India, dared the leaders of the freedom struggle to produce a constitution that would fetch approval across the board. The honourable Secretary of State was fated to disappointment. Leaders of the Congress party rose to the challenge and in the Madras session in 1927 decided to draft a constitution in association with other political groups. An All-Parties Conference was set up to supervise the task.

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On May 19, 1928 the Conference appointed a committee of nine members with Pandit Motilal Nehru as the chairman. The mandate of the committee was to determine the basic principles of a future constitution, with special reference to the communal problem, and Dominion Status/Responsible Government. 

Gandhi leading his followers on the famous salt march to break the British Salt Laws. Photo: Public domain

The Congress had stipulated that the basis of the constitution should be a Declaration of Fundamental Rights. The committee accordingly took care to conceptualise, list, and guarantee an integrated list of fundamental rights that could not be withdrawn at any point of time. Paramount among the rights recommended by the committee was universal adult suffrage for men and women, the classic right to liberty and privacy, and freedom of conscience. Also granted was the right to free expression of opinion, the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, and the right to form associations or unions for purposes not opposed to public order and morality. All citizens were assured equality before the law and granted equal civic rights.

Notably, the draft emphasised the right to the free profession and practice of religion subject to public order or morality and state neutrality in matters of religion.  There shall be, declared the constitutional draft, no state religion for the Commonwealth of India, or for any province. Nor shall the state either directly or indirectly endow any religion, or give any preference, or impose any disability on account of religious belief and status. No person shall be obliged to attend religious instructions in schools receiving state aid or public money. Significantly, the Motilal Nehru Constitutional Draft introduced the notion of minority rights, or the rights of minorities to their own religion, culture and language. All citizens were granted the right to constitutional remedies. 

The Constitution of India.

In his report to the president of the All Parties Conference, Motilal Nehru stated, ‘We cannot believe that a future responsible government can ignore the claims of mass education, or the uplift of the submerged classes, or the social or economic reconstruction of village life in India’. Whereas political power was necessary to lift people out of poverty, ill health and illiteracy, whereas political power was an essential precondition for social and economic rights, it could be justified only when social and economic rights were enacted and implemented. 

 On September 2, 1928, an editorial in the Hindustan Times titled ‘Dawning of a New Era,’ saw the report as heralding ‘the final death of communal egotism and the birth of a national consciousness in the country…We have drawn the Magna Carta of our liberty’. The Amrita Bazaar Patrika was one of the few newspapers that paid attention to the grant of social rights.

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On the same day, an editorial stridently criticised the addition of a clause initiated by Madan Mohan Malviya: that an independent government shall not confiscate lawfully acquired private property. According to the editorial, Jawaharlal Nehru had strenuously opposed this anti-socialist measure at the Lucknow meeting. His father, Motilal Nehru, suggested that it was useless to put a patch of socialism on the report. “Quite right; but why put the patch of capitalism either?” asked the editorial. 

A version of liberalism that included collective and individual freedom, rights, rule of law, limits on state power and above all constitutionalism came onto the platform of the mainstream freedom movement led by the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his autobiography that “everywhere I spoke on political independence and social freedom and made the former a step towards the attainment of the latter. I wanted to spread the ideology of socialism especially among the Congress workers and the intelligentsia, for these people, who were the backbone of the national movement, thought largely in terms of the narrowest nationalism.”

The yawning chasm that separated liberal thought from socialism in Europe was bridged by the young leaders of the national movement in the 1920s.  

Illustration: Pariplab Chakrabarty

Liberalism can be, and has been faulted on many grounds. Today when the integrity of institutions has been eroded, when the voice of the people is dismissed as anti-national, when vigilantism runs rampant and when leaders do not listen but speak down to us, we realise that liberalism might be of some import for the rebuilding of democracy. We have no choice but to go back to the basics of political life – the rights of individuals, limited state power, rule of law, and constitutional remedies, mediated through the imaginations of the leaders of the freedom struggle.

We have to revisit the 1920s, when the national movement was transformed from an elitist organisation into a people’s movement, and learning from history, reinvent and innovate the basic tenets of our democratic life. If liberalism has become a bad word for the Religious Right, there must be some virtues in the concept and practices of the ideology. Let us reinvent it.