My title seems nonsensical; surely liberals must be liberal? Is that not a tautology? And yet modern self-described liberals seem to be moving further away from what we might expect to be liberal positions such as respect for the rule of law, the concept that human rights are indeed universal, and the championing of those, at home or abroad, whose rights are under attack. One can more or less guarantee that in recent years, whenever action is taken to curtail repressive acts by a dictatorial regime, liberal intellectuals have lined up to condemn it. So Robert Fisk writes a piece in which he seems to argue that it would have been much better to leave Colonel Qaddafi to get on with massacring the Libyan people, irrespective of their request for help. Similarly, liberal luminaries have argued that Slobodan Milosevich et al should have been left to do their thing, in spite of the fact that evidence suggested that their regimes were not very nice, and as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole sorry story, in 1990 Margaret Drabble announced that she could not possibly support action to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because – wait for it – Baroness Thatcher was in favour of it, so it must be wrong.
One would expect such a position of libertarians: libertarianism as it is currently expressed, with its insistence that the sole organising principle of society is the liberty of the individual, is fundamentally selfish. But liberals are meant to care about things like human rights, and to get distressed if people of any nation are not given the chance to exercise them. So why this strange convergence of attitude between liberals and a political group with which one would expect them to be at variance? Why it is that action has become so utterly unacceptable in liberal opinion that literally anything is preferable. And before I am called on this, let me point out that I have seen one ‘liberal’ writer claim that it would have been better if the Allies had not fought the Second World War, because the Nazi regime would probably only have lasted a century or so, and obviously a Europe (or possibly a world) under the Nazi yoke for a century was preferable to the unspeakable moral stain of going to war. So when did liberals become so selfish?
This mystery is the subject of this essay. I will start, as one should, by very carefully defining liberalism and associated concepts. I will turn to the central question of what ideas turned the liberalism of Hume and Gladstone into the bastard child of corporatism and libertarianism that is called liberalism today, or, more exactly, social liberalism. I had originally intended to discuss such canards as the claims that Christ would have been a pacifist; that his followers should reject any exercise of force that is not purely defensive (the Archbishop of Canterbury says so!); that in order for any action, no matter how trivial, to be morally justified, those undertaking the action must themselves be of absolute moral purity (this relates to the first point, as it seems to derive at least partially from a radical misreading of the incident of the woman taken in adultery); or that a liberal society can be entirely inward-looking, and not concern itself with injustice elsewhere. However, fascinating though this may be, it would take me too far afield, and so I dangle before you the hopeful idea of a sequel in which I ask ‘Was Christ a pacifist?’.
What is liberalism?
In order to define liberalism properly I will set about characterising a number of political philosophies, both those similar to liberalism and those antithetical to it. The reason for this is that we will see that what is called liberalism today is generally not liberalism at all, but rather a mixture of libertarianism and corporatism.
Existing political philosophies
Fascism / corporatism
Before it became a term of general abuse meaning ‘anyone who disagrees with my political views or thwarts me in any way’, fascist meant something very specific. In general a fascist state is one that is totalitarian and corporatist. As totalitarianism is essentially a strengthening of corporatist ideas which emphasises the state as the sole source of authority, I shall concentrate mostly on the corporatist aspects.
The essence of corporatism is that the basic unit in society is the society as a whole, and it is treated as (appropriately) a single body, in which individuals are organs who act in ways specified by the brain that is the leadership, the intent being that these actions will benefit the social body as a whole, even if they do not necessarily benefit the individual. Therefore such concepts as individual freedom are meaningless, as what matters is the state and its survival, not the individual, who is impermanent. The surprising thing about corporatism is that it is not the preserve of any one part of the social spectrum, as this system of thought is as characteristic of the extreme left as it is of the extreme right. We can even see it in moderate form in the protestations of those who decry the involvement of the private sector in activities that are ‘naturally’ the preserve of the state, such as health-care and education. It is, in fact, a terribly seductive idea that can, to a greater or lesser extent, take root whenever we debate the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state.
How do we escape from this conundrum? My solution, which I will describe in detail in the section about liberalism below, is that in a liberal society we should never, ever justify any proposal in terms of the needs of or the good of the state; every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom. That sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that it is not. It also sounds rather libertarian, but it is not, for reasons I will now discuss.
Libertarianism stands at the other pole from corporatism, in that it argues that the sole organising principle for society should be personal liberty. That is to say, society should do nothing that infringes the freedom of the individual, which is taken as paramount. A very important point to note here is that this is freedom construed as freedom to and not freedom from, that is to say, it is about my freedom to do that which I will, and it is not at all about my freedom from your interference in my freedom. Possibly the reason for this is that freedom from is only properly expressible in terms of rights, but libertarianism does not know of the concept of rights. Rights flow from law and law constraints natural liberty and hence is the enemy in the libertarian model. With its emphasis on the innate liberty of the individual, libertarianism is, in fact, surprisingly close to Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch: the higher person who knows no external law or morality.
It need not be said that libertarianism begs any number of questions, such as exactly how a large-scale libertarian society could function with no state to, where necessary, compel individuals to do that which they do not wish to do. The answer, if it comes, always seems to be that somehow people will solve their problems together in a sensible way with no need for compulsion, but such an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity, laudable though it may be, fails to take into account the fact that even if people are on the whole good, they are easily led into bad, and far too many individuals exist who are not motivated by good will, and who are not susceptible to reason. Thus, libertarianism seems to be doomed to be, beyond the very small scale, doomed to be at best a theoretical model. It is, however, an interesting theoretical model for it shows how a purely ‘liberal’ society, where we trust to the good will of the individual, is bound to fail. We need some additional mechanism: the freedom from as well as the freedom to, and that is what we will discuss next.
Classical liberalism is concerned with the freedom of the individual. Therefore it espouses limited state intervention in individuals’ affairs, the rule of law and the principles that all are equal before the law and the state’s actions are predictable and transparent. This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Hayek and Popper and also, surprisingly in view of the way they have been co-opted of late by libertarians, the Founding Fathers of the United States. However, what is not clear is exactly how this differs from libertarianism.
Let me explain. I said earlier that in a liberal society every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom, which sounds nonsensical. But consider the following. Say we decide that such and such a freedom should be guaranteed to individuals. This is freedom to: the freedom to exercise guaranteed freedoms. But now, others may try to impede my freedom to; as the state has guaranteed this freedom, therefore the rights of those others must be limited so as to prevent this. But now, all things being equal, as all are equal before the law, my freedom must be limited in the same way, so that I cannot impede others’ freedom to. This is freedom from: the freedom from interference in the exercise of guaranteed freedoms. So the state intervenes to limit the freedom of individuals precisely when their freedom, unlimited, would impede the freedoms of others.
In this model, therefore the state acts as the guarantor of individual freedoms. This there is fundamentally different from libertarianism in which the individuals are guarantors of their own freedoms. Whereas the libertarian believes that individuals are basically good and capable of living together peacefully without coercion, the classical liberal agrees with Hobbes that the state is required to protect individuals from themselves and one another. In other words, it takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature and adopts the minimal approach required to rectify that fact. Corporatism, which also takes a pessimistic view adopts, instead, the maximal approach of dictating what each individual shall do, while optimistic libertarianism presumes that everything will work out in the end.
Modern day liberalism
Most self-proclaimed modern liberals are social liberals, their primary concern being not the freedom of the individual but the rather ill-defined concept of social justice. I say ill-defined because this is not any form of justice defined in its usual sense of being the machinery of law and its application, which is clearly defined and known to all. Rather it is a set of beliefs about the way that society ought to be structured. Consequently, social liberalism extends the role of the state from being the guarantor of freedom to managing economic and social issues so as to realise these ideas, so it intervenes in individuals’ lives in order to promote an idea of the way society ought to be. So what is good for society is good for the individual.
Now this can be said to be a non-minimalist version of classical liberalism, but there is a crucial difference. In classical liberalism the freedom of the individual is only limited in so far as it is necessary to do so in order to guarantee the free exercise of guaranteed rights. Thus the state may define laws and may define standards for those offering services to others (if I set up as a water supplier and elected to use only lead pipes then I would be limiting my customers’ right to good health). However, in social liberalism things go further. In social liberalism the freedom of the individual may be limited even if it does no actual harm to any other individual, but because it does perceived harm in causing the structure of society to deviate from the preferred model. In other words, social liberalism indulges in social engineering, the shaping of society to meet an idea. And where does the idea come from? The idea comes from the state.
We can also look at this from a point of view of the extent to which the state intervenes in individuals’ lives and the message that it sends to them. In classical liberalism we say that so long as individuals do not interfere with one another’s rights then they are free to be themselves. In social liberalism that is not enough: people must aspire to a higher standard. We want to make people better, and so the state intervenes in their lives so as to bring them in line with the desired goal. Now again, this could be viewed as a difference of degree, but there is also a fundamental difference of attitude. Classical liberalism’s attitude is summed up best in Crowley’s famous maxim: ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law provided it cause no harm.’ Social liberalism, on the other hand says ‘be what I want’. Bluntly, classical liberalism is about what you do while social liberalism is about what you are. To that extent, it is almost a religious position, with social justice replacing God as the object of veneration. Indeed, if one examines recent pronouncements by senior clerics one might be forgiven for thinking that this substitution had been formalised.
All of this means that social liberalism is very far from being anything that a classical liberal might recognise as liberalism. In fact, it appears to be a form of corporatism with a left-leaning veneer. However, things are more complex, because though an enthusiasm for state control of education, culture and the microeconomy is characteristic of modern liberals, this is generally combined with a belief, again almost religious in its fervour, that the state is the enemy and is basically up to no good. Paranoia about ‘the man’ or what ‘they’ might be doing and an absolute conviction, worthy of a libertarian, that those organs of the state that carry out such basic functions as managing the rule of law are acting against the common good is therefore combined with a belief that the state should be the sole supplier of any number of services. Interestingly, it seems that modern liberals insist that it is wrong for the state to undertake any of the functions that a classical liberal would expect of it, and yet consider it only right and proper that it should intervene in any number of areas that in classical liberalism are none of its business. Thus modern liberalism is in fact not just different to classical liberalism, it is antithetical to it.
Let me start by dealing with some possible criticism of classical liberalism. It is argued that it is very rule-based and not sufficiently compassionate. Social liberalism likes to claim that it, on the other hand, cares for people rather than abstract notions such as ‘justice’. This is both true and not true. An approach to running society based on emotion rather than reason might be very satisfying for those exercising the emotion, but it is scarcely the way to guarantee that the state is genuinely impartial. But this is, we are told, also a bad thing. Rather than ensuring that none have privilege in their access to law, it is argued that societal circumstances should be taken into account and that the ‘disadvantaged’ be given special treatment, thereby making them the advantaged, and creating a new privileged group. Thus egalitarians end up, in the name of equality, creating precisely the kind of bias they claim to decry, only as it is their bias it is apparently different. Classical liberalism, of course, knows no concept of egalitarianism. All are equal in the eyes of the state, but as the state is not concerned with what they do, save it cause no harm, that does not mean they are equal in any other sense. Social liberalism’s great fallacy is the attempt to shift this equality from being an aspect of how one deals with the state to being an aspect of what one is.
To return to compassion, some critics appear to believe that classical liberalism is compatible only with robber baron capitalism, and hence has no concern for people. And yet, under robber baron capitalism it is actually quite hard for individuals who are not robber barons to exercise their rights with any degree of vigour. The critical difference between a classical liberal and a social liberal is that a social liberal would tend to view success in a capitalist economy as being not very nice, whereas a classical liberal would wish that everyone could achieve it. Thus a social liberal indulges in dangerous tinkering with the economy (such as the Clinton administration’s downright reckless interference in the mortgage markets) while a classical liberal regulates it. Again, this distinction may seem small, but it is the difference between telling individuals what are acceptable economic activities and trying to push individuals in particular directions, and indicating to individuals how they should comport their economic activities so as to do no harm to others. This extends to other areas. The social liberal asserts that any private education or medicine is an affront to the dignity of man and offers instead a mediocre state-controlled egalitarian approach. The classical liberal does not care how either is obtained provided that education or health-care of a defined standard is available to all. Regulation – the setting of standards – is strangely anathema to social liberals, who appear to think that there is more to health-care than making people well and more to education than giving people useful skills, but who do not appear able to define precisely what this more is. And yet, for example, actually guaranteeing that all schools met the same standard of education, coupled with regulation of university selection, would surely be a far more effective way of ending educational privilege than abstruse schemes to bias the system in favour of the ‘disadvantaged’? Better by far, one would have thought, to ensure that they were not disadvantaged in the first place.
This, I think, underlines a key shift in ideas from classical to social liberalism. Classical liberalism contains a very clear set of ideas that one can act on to build whatever kind of state the people happen to want. This is its strength: provided the state is fair and impartial and just, the individuals who make up its people can make of it whatever they want. This is also a potential weakness, of course, as without sufficiently strong institutions it is not hard to turn a classically liberal state into a corporatist state, as happened in Germany at the end of the 1920s; the remedy for this is to ensure that the people want to live in a liberal state. In social liberalism, on the other hand, there is a well-defined ideology of what the state ought to look like and what kind of thing the people ought to want (or be allowed to have), but it is generally expressed so vaguely that it is not at all clear how this ideology is to be realised other than by faith or compulsion. There is no need to worry about whether a socially liberal state will become repressive, because it already is. Indeed, some social liberals even question the value of abstract justice, in the sense of an abstract impartial system of law, on the grounds that it does not care about the underlying problem, whatever that means (generally whatever the social liberal in question happens to be upset about today) but is only concerned with preserving order. So this is a shift from precision to vagueness, from the machinery of government to quasi-religious ideology, from treating individuals as adults free to make their own lives to treating them as children needing to be led. In fact, in the transition from ideas to faith and partnership to direction one might as well drop the ‘quasi’ and say that we have seen a shift from the world-view of the Enlightenment to that of authoritarian religion.
This is where social liberalism wants it both ways. While claiming to be permissive and compassionate, it wants to be didactic and prescribe everyone’s behaviour, but it does not consider those in power as being fit to be so. One might be cynical and argue that their lack of suitability is based not in the fact that they are provably bad but rather in the fact that they are provably not the sort of people social liberals invite to their dinner parties. In other words, we have the classic cultist’s belief system: things would be so much better if only I were in charge, and none but I has a legitimate right to rule. Hence the apparent paradoxical combination of opposition to established power and an extremely repressive ideology, and once again the threat of religious extremism.
Social liberalism as cult
Examining the thesis of social liberalism as a quasi-religious cult, it is clear that there is considerable evidence in its favour. To start at the beginning, the ideology is founded on assertions that are claimed to be self-evidently true, but which turn out to be muddy, ill-defined and most-likely mutually contradictory. As I have said, the concept of ‘social justice’ is more or less impossible to define, but it generally seems to come down to some vision of the way society ought to be and the way it ought not to be. This vision itself generally derives from a number of more basic ideas, like radical egalitarianism, redistribution, social engineering, pacifism and libertarianism. Now, none of these is self-evident, and it is indeed very far from self-evident how egalitarianism can be reconciled with (say) a redistributionism which requires the existence of a super-class to make decisions about who is and is not deserving. Therefore, the ideology is founded on a collection of assumptions which are themselves complex, in that they are not at all well-defined, and which are insusceptible to argument; they can only be asserted. Contrast this with the situation in classical liberalism, where the basis is the idea that for every right granted, certain rights must be rescinded in order to protect the ability to exercise that right. This is simple and susceptible to logical analysis; once one accepts the concept of granted rights, it follows more or less as a logical truism.
What we see here is a clear example of the difference between religion and science. Science is based on well-defined premises that are subject to verification. Religion is based on dogmatic assertion that must be accepted in an act of faith. In view of this, clearly classical liberalism is scientific in its approach, while social liberalism, with its motley collection of vague but unquestionable beliefs, is religious. So, for example, we recently saw in the UK an argument put forward by economists that the highest tax-band was economically harmful. A leading ‘liberal’ politician rebutted their argument not on economic grounds, but because removing said tax-band would be ‘morally repugnant’. He did not argue that their proposal was economically harmful, but that somehow social justice demanded that it be ignored. In other words, he took a technical proposition based in the language of economics and attempted to rubbish it using a quasi-religious appeal to a woolly concept that has nothing at all to do with economics, and he clearly saw no need to make an economic argument. In religious terms, he used the familiar get-out-of-jail-free card of declaring the idea anathema: if one can say that an idea is heretical there is no need to understand it or answer its questions, it is just wrong and it should not be posed.
Another aspect of religious thinking is the establishment of an elite or priestly caste whose function is to interpret dogma for the masses and to provide leadership and direction in establishing the way that society responds to the dogma. Now, again, if the dogma consisted of self-evident, or at least simple and arguable, principles there would be no need for such a caste, as one could be reasonably certain that all individuals would be able to interpret the principles in a consistent way, and so such enforcement mechanisms as are required would be those required by the principles themselves. So in classical liberalism, once the granted rights and the penalties for interfering with those rights are defined, there is no need for further discussion or interpretation: an individual knows that if they interfere with others’ exercise of their granted rights they will be subject to a defined penalty, and that otherwise they are free to act. In a system based on dogma, however, even if everyone knows what the principles are, as they are unclear or ill-defined, they need to be told what they mean, resulting either in an ever-expanding commentary on the law or in case-by-case special pleading. We know that social liberals, with their notion that abstract justice must be modified to consider individual circumstances, would support the special pleading.
As evidence of priestly thinking it is worth noting the often rather condescending attitude of professional social liberals to the people as a whole. They are not content to accept that if people want something and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone then they should be allowed to do it, for it may be ideologically wrong. Hence the rather regrettable fact that modern action movies appear to be no more than cinematic noise and fury is generally condemned as a bad thing, with little attention being paid to the fact that these films are incredibly popular. The people who flock to see them are clearly misled, and so not to be trusted to have the right taste; such decisions should be made by an elite (people like us). The same attitude is to be seen throughout coverage of culture and even politics where, for example, many social liberal thinkers appear to have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that though they despise Tony Blair, polls made it clear that had he still been leading the Labour Party, it would have won the 2010 general election.
If the people cannot be trusted, then clearly their ideas on what society should do cannot be trusted, and so there is the need for a caste of thinkers and commentators to make decisions for them. This might well go some way to explaining the social liberal’s loathing of the state’s machinery: politicians have the inestimable disadvantage, as compared to journalists, academics and think tank members, of having to mix with the people and pay attention to what they say. Thus they can claim greater legitimacy than the social liberal luminaries, but they are infected with the heresy of pragmatism, and so hostility is inevitable, reminiscent of the hostility between King and Pope. Thus, just as the Popes did in the past, social liberalism insist that they have the sole legitimacy, setting themselves up as a unique source of untainted truth. The fact that they cannot justify any of their beliefs (including this one) only makes their legitimacy the greater.
Returning to the example of the movies, we see an interesting fact. It is not enough to say that tastes change and that people really like mindless violence, so what are you going to do about it. That would be akin to accepting Hobbesian pessimism about human nature rather than Rousseau’s optimism. If people are basically bad and stupid then anything is possible and one and the same person can be a great writer and a moral pygmy. However, if one has it as an article of faith that people are basically good, then there must be something more sinister at work: the temptation of the world. And so we see that far too many critics insist that modern movies are pretty dumb because studio bosses are deliberately ‘dumbing down‘ the medium, which is ridiculous, because studio bosses are interested in one thing: making money. If there was as much money to be made with movies like Last Year at Marienbad as there is with Transformers 4: Here we go Again then Hollywood would be churning out complex, ambiguous, stylised art movies by the ton. But this argument does not work for the critics, because instead of accepting that nearly everyone is pretty dumb but only a very few people are really bad, they prefer to see movie-goers as sheep to be led, and the studios as demonic tempters who are leading them into sin. This attitude, again, generalises. In political debate their opponents cannot be mistaken, they have to be wrong, almost morally wrong. Pragmatism (allowing the sinful world to enter into the paradise garden) is the ultimate evil: it is not sufficient that something work; sooner it fail entirely than it work but be impure.
This disdain for the practical has another effect. The dogmatic beliefs making up social liberalism must be absolute; if they admit any restraint, moderation or regulation, then they are rendered impure. Now, in classical liberalism, everything is subject to regulation, from individual rights to the system of justice itself, as it is accepted that everything needs oversight and that any absolute can in itself be harmful. In the Manichean world of the social liberal this is no longer true: rights or facts can be established as being unquestionable. And as such one ends up creating an über-class which has rights not available to others. For example, social liberals (probably because many of them are journalists) are adamant that journalistic protection of sources must be an absolute right. Now, it is a quite reasonable right, but why should it be absolute? And, more to the point, should we not be concerned that, by making it an absolute, we have now created an über-class of journalists who are accountable to none, who basically have the right to dictate to the justice system what it may or may not know, and who therefore stand above the law? This looks very much like authoritarianism under another name.
A liberalism for the selfish
Of course, one characteristic of the more cultic kind of religion is that it tends to distinguish very clearly between the esoteric and the exoteric, between true believers and outsiders, and, on the whole, is largely uninterested in the welfare of those outsiders. They are also generally strongly hierarchical, with obedience to the leaders emphasised. As we have seen, social liberalism strongly manifests this latter tendency, so the obvious question is whether it also manifests the former.
As a starting point, it is easy to see that the prominent social liberal are themselves selfish in their application of social liberalism. The most egregious evidence of this is the apparent belief that use of force is such a moral stain on the character that one should tolerate anything in order to avoid it, including ignoring actual requests to exercise it by those who are being deprived of many of the more basic rights (such as to live) that we tend to take for granted. Indeed, we see the somewhat comical spectacle of a current Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Pope flatly contradicting Jesus Christ on the the subject of intervening in others’ affairs. So it seems that what matters is that I and my friends be okay, and ‘other’ people can suffer deprivation of all those social benefits I claim to be in favour of, because, well, I don’t know them, and I might have to get my hands dirty in the process. That this is selfishness goes without saying: what matters is me and my moral state, and when I claim to be interested in social justice I define society in the narrowest possible sense so as to exclude, strangely enough, often those in most need it. We also saw this in reaction of to the recent English rioting. In order to promote their own agenda, they made a case that the rioters were those of the dispossessed working class made desperate by the evils of the police, the free market and so on and so forth. In the process, they privileged the rioters, who actually turned out to be anything but dispossessed workers, and themselves dispossessed the large numbers of genuinely working class individuals who stood with the police against the rioters, and argued that the well-being of the rioters counted for more than that of the genuine workers whose livelihoods they destroyed. Thus they created a deserving and undeserving poor based not on any true concept of social justice, but rather entirely on which group it most suited them to appear to side with in order to achieve their own ends. This is selfishness again, in that the rioters and their victims become playing-pieces in a game between social liberals and their enemies.
Now, it is a truism that the selfishness of individual social liberals does not make social liberalism selfish, and yet it is very uncommon to find a social liberal who does not subscribe to the kind of error I described above. Abstracting, we see that two points emerge. First, in Manichean fashion, the world is divided into those who count and those who do not, so society is not totality, rather those whom one wishes to benefit with social justice are a distinct subgroup. Second, what really matters is the promotion of an agenda, whether it be personal moral purity or state ownership of public services, that has little real basis in any benefit to society, even that part of it that one cares about. It is clear that if one subscribes to these points then one will inevitably be selfish, because the people who do not count do not concern one, and the people who do exist only to serve one’s will. But, once again, we are in the world of cultic religion. Let the liberal elite be the priesthood, those who count be the believers and those who do not the pagans, and the agenda (whatever it may be) the dogma. With those definitions, my two points become inevitable: cultic religions define a very clear division of humanity into us and them in which the out-group is of little of no significance and all that matters is the benefit of the in-group; moreover they have ineffable and inviolable commandments that the in-group must obey; and, most important, the priesthood get to define us and them and what the commandments are. We concluded above that social liberalism is, in fact, a cultic religion, and so the two points apply automatically. Therefore social liberalism is selfish.
This goes a long way towards explaining some of the more mysterious features of social liberalism. Given that so many of its proponents claim to take inspiration from the grand universalist philosophies of Marx, their cheerful tendency to ignore entirely the well-being of anyone it suits them to seems somewhat mysterious, as Marx was quite clear that he was talking about the World, not one group in one country. And yet, if social liberalism is a cultic religion which uses the language but not the ideas of Marxism, such anomalies as Sartre (rightly) condemning atrocities committed by the French in Algeria while (wrongly) cheering on even worse atrocities in the USSR become at least comprehensible. Sartre was not a Marxist; he was a priest of a religious cult that co-opted Marxism for its own ends. Classical liberalism, such as in the abolitionist campaign, is universalist. If social liberals had been around at the time they would probably have found a reason why only some slaves were men and brothers.