Left and Right

Every so often, in our modern political history, observers have thrown up their hands in exasperation at our terminology of "Left" and "Right," declaring that the dichotomy is completely arbitrary, meaningless, misleading. At one time or another, various subsidiary terms ("liberal," "socialist," "conservative," etc.) have aroused the same reaction, as they lost their initial clarity through extension and misuse. Yet no one has ever succeeded in providing a new and better terminology; which tends to indicate that, despite its vagueness and looseness, it does describe our situation adequately.

The surest way to clarify such terms is to go back in history and see how they originated and evolved. The complexity and confusion of events do not prevent us from discovering a fairly consistent genealogy and taxonomy of ideologies, based on the history of ideas and movements, rather than geometrical figures. When we do this, we see that the various forces called the "Left" form a continuum: the whole "liberation" movement that has, in various guises and in ever more "advanced" forms, unfolded through Western history since the American and French Revolutions. The "Right," in turn, comprises the resistance to this "liberation," or rebellion against it.

The history of the Left over the past two centuries shows a clear pattern of "progress," or rather degeneration, from liberalism (in its original form), to socialism, to Communism, to the New Left in its various guises. Each form is ever more radical, ever more subversive, ever more destructive. Now, finally, the Left believes in nothing and desires nothing, not even power, except for the perverse enjoyment of destruction itself. The essence of the contemporary Left is nihilism -- the spirit of pure negation.

In the eighteenth century, the American and French revolutions overthrew the power of the Church, monarchy, and aristocracy. In America, a (relatively) stable new republican order was established; in Europe, however, the revolution itself was more radical, and the opposition to it was stronger. Even as the old order was destroyed piecemeal, the founders of the new regime were themselves challenged by the ever more radical new revolution.

The American Revolution was the more successful because it was less revolutionary. It was a political revolution only: the religious, social, and economic structures were not meant to be touched (though of course they were affected by the change of regime, as its implications took effect over the generations). The King was an ocean away, there was hardly any kind of aristocracy, the religious tradition was fissiparously Protestant, and the colonists had centuries of parliamentary tradition to school them in self-government.

The French, unfortunately, had none of these advantages. Their revolution began by trying to limit the monarchy with a constitution, but it soon spun out of control as the constitutional monarchists and moderate reformers were outflanked by radicals and republicans. The revolutionaries, instead of building upon past achievements and established institutions, tried to uproot the entire old order and rebuild society from the ground up. For instance, the old, traditional provinces were divided into arbitrary "departments" more or less equal in size; it was as if our Constitutional Convention had, instead of its eminently sensible bicameral compromise, resolved to divide the thirteen states into fifty dependent nonentities. The results: domestic reaction, foreign wars, revolutionary terror, military dictatorship, and finally a monarchy restored at gunpoint by a coalition of all the European powers.

The American and French revolutionaries had both called themselves "patriots." The term "liberalism" was coined in the nineteenth century, and signified the parties that carried on the progressive realization of a free, equal, and secular society, which shaped the basic institutions of modern civilization that we take for granted: the nation-state, the free-market economy, and democratic government. The character of liberalism changed with the drift, or lurches, ever farther leftward that were foreshadowed by the two revolutions. For instance, liberals originally favored constitutional, but not democratic government: fearing the tyranny of the majority, they opposed universal manhood suffrage, and never conceived of votes for women.

Just as the moderate liberals were outflanked by more radical liberals, the liberal Left as a whole was outflanked by socialism, which added patriotism, the family, religion (i.e. religion as such, as opposed to clericalism), and private property to the list of institutions to be overthrown for the sake of freedom and equality. Participating in democratic elections and government -- plus the awkward fact that the free-enterprise system does, after all, work better than any alternative -- posed a dilemma for the socialists. Some reconciled themselves to the basic institution of private property, only regulated and redistributed by government, and merged with the liberals who reached the same position from the opposite direction. Others kept alive the dream of bloody revolution, complete expropriation, and the "dictatorship of the proletariat": these came into their own with the Russian Revolution, which split every Socialist party in the West and produced the international Communist movement.

Even farther Left than the socialists are the anarchists. Little need be said of them, except that their program added government itself to the list of institutions from which man was to be "liberated," and so promised the final destruction of all existing society. Their complete failure offers one hope that the leftward drift is not, after all, inevitable and limitless; but in their wholesale destructiveness and feverish irrationalism, they foreshadowed today's nihilist Left.

The term "New Left" refers to the whole congeries of "liberation" movements that erupted during the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which are all tinged with socialism, yet have largely overshadowed the pure socialist (i.e. political-economic) idea with cultural or "lifestyle" issues: e.g. black racism, feminism, homosexual activism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, etc. "Liberalism" today is the least-common-denominator agglomeration of all the diverse and outré Left-wing ideologies, from socialism on down, toned down enough to be presentable to the mass-media audience and the general electorate. The liberals' ultimate aims, under the concealment of euphemism and sanctimonious posturing, are exactly the same as the communists': the destruction of religion, morality, patriotism, property, the family -- everything in society except the all-powerful government.

As late as 1968, there were real differences in principle between liberals and the totalitarian Left: not profound, but significant. In 1972, however, the radicals took control of the Democratic party; around that time, "liberalism" changed its meaning once again, and (I believe) for all time. Around that time, the "neoconservatives" performed an about-face and became the very last group of liberals who will ever join the Right. From then on, the Left has believed in nothing and affirmed nothing, so there is no possibility of any contemporary liberal discovering that, after all, there is something he wants to preserve from its enemies to the Left.

Still, it must be said that, at the same time, another new Left was emerging, though as yet it is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand: this is libertarianism.Some libertarians like to pretend that they are neither Left nor Right; other libertarians, most (if not all) liberals, and some conservatives (who ought to know better) think that they are really of the Right.

Libertarianism has two parts. The first part is negative: the challenge to contemporary liberalism -- by Ayn Rand in ethics, by Mises and Friedman and hundreds of others in economics, by John Stossel in journalism. This is the recognition that the egalitarian-collectivist-statist Left's goals are both immoral and impractical. This part of libertarianism is easily confused with conservatism and mistaken for part of the Right.

The second part is positive: the proposed replacement for liberalism. Liberty replaces equality, individualism replaces collectivism, capitalism replaces statism, anarchism replaces totalitarianism. In short, one utopian ideology replaces another. The only consolation for the rise of this new Left (or revival of an old Left -- viz. "classical liberalism") is that it might weaken the Left as a whole by dividing it.

The original Right emerged in defense of the traditional order of monarchy, aristocracy, and the established church, which was overthrown by the American and French Revolutions. Even as the forces of the old order weakened, they were joined by elements of the forces of revolution, which were satiated with the gains they had made and pushed into a defensive stance against the threat of further revolution. Over time, as the older institutions were altered or abolished, the traditionalist Right had to adapt to the new liberal regime; while the liberal Right had to borrow social conservatism to support its own positions.

On the other hand, new and (paradoxically) more radical forces of the Right emerged, which did not merely resist the Left, but rebelled against it. Their goal was to create a new order to replace the bankrupt old order, but on fundamentally different principles from the egalitarian Left.

It is difficult to generalize about these new forces, partly because they were as innovative as they were conservative, and partly because what they did want to conserve was specific to each nation. If any one term can cover them all, it is "populist" -- in two senses. First, they adapted to the new conditions of democracy by forming mass-based parties, competing with the socialists on their own terms, even if (like the communists) their ultimate goal was to destroy democracy. Second, their fundamental principle was loyalty to "the people": not defined in terms of class, as the Left did, but in terms of nationality or race.

For the populist Right as for the socialist Left, the acid test has always been whether or not it accepts the basic political and economic rights, and opposes totalitarianism in all forms. Parallel to the democratic socialists and the communists, we have the democratic nationalists and the fascists. (Actually, that statement is rather too kind to the socialists: where is there any anti-communist socialist to compare with the anti-fascist national hero, General De Gaulle?) It may be needless to say, but let me reaffirm it anyway: what I myself advocate is democratic nationalism.

In America today, the Right is divided into two distinct movements: conservatism and white racism. There is some overlap at the margins, but their core ideas, ideologues, and organizations are entirely and deliberately separate. Conservatives have repudiated and isolated racists far more effectively than liberals ever repudiated and isolated communists. Fortunately the conservative movement is far larger and stronger, though it still leaves much to be desired. Fragmented and completely marginalized, the racist Right is only a nuisance; it is worth mentioning only for the sake of thoroughness and for contrast (since liberals, who control the education/news/entertainment complex, think that anyone who questions their prejudices must be a nazi).

It would be hard to find any American "conservative" who would not have been called a "liberal" at some earlier stage in the development of liberalism -- whether paleoconservatives nostalgic for the antebellum republic, or neoconservatives mourning the long-lost Democratic party of Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy. About the only authentic, unqualified conservatives America has ever had were the Tories who opposed the Revolution and got kicked out of the country for their pains. The Christian Right might be construed as being a form of traditionalism (inspired as it is by premodern beliefs), but only in the same sense as the Christian Democratic parties of Europe.

The only American of any prominence who promotes nationalist issues is Pat Buchanan; most often (sad to say) "nationalism" is used as a mask for white racism (just as "black nationalism" actually signifies black racism). There is no room here to pick apart Buchanan's package-deal of protectionism, isolationism, and nativism. Suffice it to say that I for one would gladly trade higher tariffs for lower taxes, the Cold War is long over, and we really do need a wall along our southern border.

© 1999 by Karl Jahn