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Liberals and liberalism

13 June 2008

Liberals tend to get a bad press nowadays. Those who dislike liberalism often no longer even bother to try to justify their dislike — it is enough to simply use the word “liberal” as an epithet to condemn the person in their eyes. The enemies of liberalism, on both the left and the right, have so thoroughly caricatured liberalism and liberals that many people no longer know what the words mean.[1]

Perhaps the best way to counter the caricature is to look at some real liberals, and in this post I will look at just one, Peter Brown, the former National Chairman of the Liberal Party of South Africa. In An audit of liberalism from Brown to Leon, Patrick Lawrence writes:

Brown, who was detained for 98 days in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, was the antithesis of the effete drawing room liberal caricatured by the political enemies of liberalism on the left and right. He was decidedly not the kind of liberal who leaves the room when the fight begins. Though firmly committed to non-violence, he refused to submit to the NP government and its bullyboys in the security police. He even invoked fear in them by his persistent solidarity with black landowners in Natal who were targeted for forced removal and by his success in recruiting black people into the ranks of the LP.

I think Lawrence got that exactly right. though I would not say that of the rest of his article. Regressing from Peter Brown to Tony Leon is really a classic example of bathos. If anything, Tony Leon epitomised the caricature of the “white liberal”. Peter Brown was the real thing. In particular, Tony Leon’s shameless attempts to gain the support of the white right in the 1999 South African general election, and the sordid machinations to unite with the rump of the National Party that followed, which introduced the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, must exclude him from the category of “liberal”.

Randolph Vigne, in his obituary of Peter Brown in The Independent (6 July 2004), writes

As National Chairman from 1958, with Paton as President, he was an inspiring leader of the Liberal Party, most of whose members never knew how much the party depended on his full-time and unpaid service, his leadership and generous financial support. The government of Hendrik Verwoerd unwittingly awarded him the true badge of honour among the oppressed by sending him to prison, with hundreds of others, in its panic after the Sharpeville shootings in 1960. In Pietermaritzburg jail for three months, he, typically, refused, after intercession in high places, to give undertakings that would have set him free while blacks and whites throughout the country stayed in prison.He led the party for four more stormy years. The Congresses were outlawed and their leaders jailed, silenced or in exile and the party fought alone though worn down by banning orders served on 50 leading members, Brown, in July 1964, among the first to be thus made a “non-person”. Within four years, new legislation outlawed racially mixed political activity, removing the Liberal Party’s non-negotiable raison d’être.

In South Africa, the noun “liberal” is so often preceded by the epithet “white” that one might get the impression that the Liberal Party was an all-white affair, and forget the contribution of black liberals like Selby Msimang, Elliot Mngadi, Chris Shabalala, Hyacinth “Bill” Bhengu and many others. The Liberal Party, both in policy and in fact, was non-racial rather than multiracial. It’s aim was to bring about nonracial democracy in South Africa.

If you want to know what a liberal is, check the obituaries of Peter Brown. He was not the only liberal, but he was a real liberal, not the phony liberal of the caricatures of both the left and the right.

  1. Independent obituary
  2. Mail & Guardian obituary


[1] Gavin Evans’s article is a pretty good summary of the later stages of the South African liberation struggle, and he gives a few reasons for the criticism of “white liberals” from the left. But it is questionable how liberal  some of the people termed “liberals” actually were.  Some could at best be described as “semi-liberal” — they held some liberal values, but not others. The Progressive Party was not liberal, though it had some liberal people in it. It was always elitist: its policy was to drop racial discrimination and replace it with discrimination in favour of the rich and educated. At a student conference in the 1960s I said as much to a (black) supporter of the Progressive Party, and he accused me of preaching “Congoism”, and said that the Liberal “one man one vote” would never work.

The main criticism of the Liberal Party from the left was from the Communist Party, which claimed that the Liberal Party was a party of the bourgeoisie. Though most of the black members in Natal were black peasants, they were often landowning peasants like the Russian kulaks. The Nationalist government was ethnically cleansing them to remove “blackspots”, but if they had been subjected to a Stalinist solution, would they have been any better off? The difference is that the National Party actually applied its ethnic cleansing policy. The Communist Party, even though part of the government, has not actually attempted to apply a Stalinist solution, but has adopted a more liberal policy. Thus the left, though they have sometimes adopted liberal policies, still continue to badmouth liberals in their rhetoric.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 June 2008 9:02 pm

    That is why I, though most of my opinions probably fall on the (traditional) Liberal side, don’t use the word – in fact, my Facebook profile lists my politics as “other”. Here in North-America the word has also lost its meaning alltogether. I like the Liberal ideas of say Chesterton and his kind – but that has largely dissappeared.

    Here in Canada the leader of the Liberal Party is a Tony Leon-like chihuahua, or so it seems. A lot of politicking, and little understanding. This makes it difficult to choose one’s politcal home – and maybe that is just the thing, our home is not political. But that does not imply that we are outside politics, but rather that a consistent Christian ethic will find itself in opposition to a wide variety of political positions, at different times.

  2. 17 June 2008 7:40 am


    Yes, but what Chesterton says about liberalism indicates that he was not unaware of the sordid politicking that goes on:

    “But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were Telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not
    so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”

  3. 17 June 2008 11:26 pm

    Steve: thanks for this post.
    You are thoughtful and appropriately pointed (as usual). The Chesterton quote is great. I wish that there were more truly liberal people in our country. But most of us are fearful of living life liberally – and so retreat into conservative fundamentalism. And it is from these fixed positions that we wage war against each other, instead of embracing the space that a liberal perspective can open up.

  4. 18 June 2008 5:58 am


    One of the ironies of life in South Africa is that we have a liberal-democratic constitution, but no liberals in parliament. While I don’t think the constitution is perfect, it generally aims at the kind of society that Peter Brown and other Liberals were working for.

    Actually I think there may be some almost-liberals in parliament. I can think of two: Pallo Jordan and Patricia de Lille. But, as Chesterton points out, they are still fallible human beings, and it would not be wise to trust them. As the Psalmist says, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.”


  1. the fun of listening to liberals and conservatives « my contemplations

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