If you are unfamiliar with the online platform, New Frame, a good place to start in acquainting yourself with it might be its editorial on Friday, titled We need to talk about classical liberalism.

You might not like it much. It begins, after all, with something of a put-down: ‘A history of enslavement, colonialism, wars and coups by so-called liberal states refutes the notion that this political ideology is the true home of inclusion and non-racialism.’

But New Frame is a serious-minded enterprise and it would be a mistake simply to dismiss it if we are to live up to our commitment to engaging in the battle of ideas.

Now more than ever, there’s a risk – and it’s true of all sides of the political debate – of imagining that gaining the applause of an adoring following is the same as gaining ground for better ideas. It puts me in mind of a prize fighter whose rippling muscles and deft jabs at the air have the audience on its feet, roaring approval, but overlooking the bleak fact that their icon is all alone in the ring.

What’s important about New Frame’s editorial, and its central thesis that liberal history ‘refutes’ liberalism’s claim to being ‘the true home of inclusion and non-racialism’, is that it is an opportunity to engage honestly with liberalism’s flawed history. For all its defects and failures, and possibly the discomfort of facing them, liberalism’s evolving history demonstrates clearly how it can lay a stronger claim to ‘inclusion’ and ‘non-racialism’ than other ways of thinking about people and how they live.

It is uncontroversial that much liberal thinking emerges from a history that is not one of unremitting virtue. No history is, of course, but does liberalism’s history undermine the force of its ideas?

‘Assumed to be beyond reproach’

New Frame – others have done so, too, in recent months – dwells at length on what it imagines is a liberal article of faith: that influential figures such as ‘the second great liberal philosopher’ John Stuart Mill, author of the essay, On Liberty, are ‘assumed to be beyond reproach’.

Liberals are accused of ignoring unpalatable features of Mill’s arguments, failing, for instance, to ‘acknowledge that, at the beginning of the essay, Mill clearly states that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.” … (and)  that in the colonies there were “savage tribes so averse from regular industry, that industrial life is scarcely able to introduce itself among them until they are … conquered and made slaves of”’.

Turning to the ‘first great liberal philosopher’, John Locke, New Frame records that Locke ‘actively supported, in theory and in practice, the colonisation of the Americas and African enslavement’ and that he drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, adopted on 1 March 1669, whose Article 110 ‘declared that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”.’

Having levelled the charge that ‘the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) regularly claims that classical liberalism is a non-racial tradition, and often implies that it is the authentic non-racial tradition’, it would seem to follow that if, for instance, you put Mill or Locke in a podcast with Sihle Ngobese, aka Big Daddy Liberty, the result would be a model of obfuscation, dissembling and deferential.

In fact, there would likely be fireworks. And the reason is that liberalism, far from relying on a fundamentalist deference for founding apostles, has proved itself to be dynamic and inherently intolerant of dogma – precisely on the grounds of the core idea seeded by the early liberal thinkers; the primacy of individual liberty, elaborated, tested, and refined over the centuries since.

There is no quibbling with the thrust of the argument advanced by New Frame that ‘the assumption that classical liberalism is an unsullied heritage with a universal claim to moral superiority cannot be sustained by a reading of the classic liberal texts, or a cursory examination of the history of liberal revolutions and liberal states’.

People are not saints

Liberalism never has been, or ever will be, free of error – if only because what it advocates is greater freedom for people, and people are not saints.

But New Frame treads on altogether less certain ground when it argues that ‘the IRR’s claim that classical liberalism is the authentic non-racial tradition is absurd. It is either premised on a wilful ignorance or a deliberate disregard for history, undergirded by the racist assumption that the millions of people enslaved, murdered and denied the right to political autonomy by liberal regimes are of no real consequence’.

We are accused of attempting to ‘co-opt an idea [non-racialism] – and a term – that is central to the radical tradition in South Africa for reactionary ends’.

In fact, the IRR has been generous in recognising non-racial thinking beyond liberal confines (most recently in recalling the penetrating arguments of Neville Alexander).

In the first place, who ‘owns’ non-racialism is not an issue.

But what is important, and telling, is that the simple idea of individual liberty, which is non-racial to the extent that it obliterates racialism, is actually central to the task of exposing the defects and contradictions of Mill or Locke, the illiberal conduct of ‘liberal’ states since, or the patterns, conventions and abuses of ‘liberal’ commerce (the evidence New Frame calls on to prosecute its case). This reflects at once its usefulness and its moral force.

Scope for correction

It does not automatically deliver a guarantee against error and abuse – but it does, perhaps, best guarantee the scope for correction, because it places choice in the hands of the most significant figure in society; the person who does not want to be harmed, discriminated against, interfered with or told how to live.

New Frame concedes that its critique of liberalism ‘is not to suggest that there are not, for instance, important questions to be asked about the dangers of the public sadism and mobbing encouraged by the new online public sphere, which is owned and mediated by massive corporations seeking dopamine hits to drive traffic and profits. There are important discussions to be had about aspects of “cancel culture”.’

It concludes, however: ‘But when this discussion, and others about the nature of the contemporary public sphere, begin with the assumption that the public sphere established by classical liberalism was a space of universal inclusion and reasoned debate, it cannot be taken seriously.’

In fact, as the preceding arguments demonstrate, there is no such assumption. The public sphere is what free people choose it to be. And if classical liberals believe in anything, it is the freedom of individuals to choose.

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