The Liberal Delusion: a retrospective

In the 9 years since publication, The Liberal Delusion by John Marsh is as relevant and insightful as ever. At the memorial service for the author on Saturday I was struck by how much of the character of the man went into his masterful analysis. He was not an author – this was his only completed book – but he was a great thinker and a historian.

In latter years, the stream of neo-liberal thought has taken a weird turn not anticipated in the book, but the author does show where the philosophy went wrong so as to produce these abominations.

I have a lot for which to be grateful to John Marsh. I always found his robust, infectious cheerfulness and enthusiasm a delight; it drew you in and provoked mischievously.  This enthusiasm and his iconoclasm and plain common sense in the face of nonsense, all these come out in his book, and they inspired in part the creation of this blog: while it is based on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, I have always been aware that the philosophy of the nature of humanity is in Hobbes indeed, with a debt to Anthony Burgess, but filtered through the clarity with which John Marsh expressed his fundamental concepts.  His central argument is the central argument I have adopted in a number of my posts here.

The malaise of these days is recorded in many a book and for the most part it is little more than a jeremiad, an impotent lamentation. The Liberal Delusion is very different, for while it does recite laments, its concern is finding and extirpating the root of society’s failure, finding it in a failure of modern liberal philosophy: this is the Liberal Delusion.

The book takes aim at a single flaw which is at the root of modern liberalism. From that one error follow conclusions all based on that error. If you make a wrong turn on the road, however boldly and logically you follow the lanes ahead of you, you are going in the wrong direction, and can only go right it you start again where you went wrong. His provocative question is this: ‘Is western civilisation based on a mistaken understanding of humanity?‘  Yes, it is.

The flaw of liberal philosophy is the first of the delusions listed: “Human Nature is Good and Rational”. It is frightening to think that is not the case, because if man is a venal animal driven by emotional impulses then the beast may burst out at any moment – but man is an animal, and fundamental nature is evil: this is made clear in the Bible, and in the evidence of our own eyes. In the stench of the camps, or the gulags, or Afghanistan, could anyone really believe Rousseau that ‘Mankind is naturally good’? If we do not recognise the uncomfortable reality, then we cannot form society so as to restrain the beast.

Society can be too far restrained, and in most of the world it is. Only freedom enables development, innovation and the creation of prosperity. Freedom based on a cautious understanding of what lies in the heart of man is positive, and drove the prosperity of the modern age until liberal philosophers took a grip. Freedom itself is not the issue. Mankind is the clay of society, and misunderstanding the nature of the material, any structure must collapse.

The book examines ten specific delusions of the liberals; amongst them that mankind is good; that more freedom is always good; that morality is unnecessary; science is benign and religion harmful, and all that leads from these.

This is not enough though – the historian asserts himself and in the second section “The Dark Side of Liberalism” shows the direct result of these ideas since the Enlightenment. Some consequences and event are known to us and make us shudder still. Some, like the mass-murder of the Vendée after the French Revolution, have slipped from the collective memory and deserve recall. (History books are written by academic historians, much given to finding patterns where there are none, and fudging out events which disprove the pattern or the heroism they have attributed to men who were monsters; as are we all under the skin.)

The book is not long: the author resisted the temptation to pad it out just to be impressive.  It says what it needs to say, shows you why it is true, and no more. If only other writers would adopt that approach.

At the launch, the publisher was keen but cautious about the arguments, and it was only afterwards that I thought about this: a publisher will praise the industry and insight of his author but no one expects him to agree with everything written, but here was a book so intense in its insistence that he could not help but be drawn in. I hope that other readers will also be, and I would certainly urge our politicians to buy a copy and to digest it, considering whether, in fact, they have got something wrong.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short