No Country For Old Politics: Redefining Left vs. Right by Paul Gottfried

The task before me is explaining with appropriate distinctions and qualifications “What is right and what is left?” For those who wish to avoid the harangue of an activist, let me assure them that I do not equate “conservative” with Republican or with the viewing habits of FOX News devotees. Being a Republican and dutifully reciting party talking points is for me no sign of being on the right; nor is a disinclination to do either indicative of being on the left.

A classical or essentialist Right is hard to find in the contemporary Western world, where journalists and other assorted intellectuals rush to denounce its bearers, or even partial bearers, as “fascists.” That may be one reason that such types rarely come into public view, outside of certain European parties that have been able to survive in a multi-party electoral system. Being on the essentialist Right is deadly in an academic or journalistic milieu that is shot through with quintessential leftist values. There are isolated intellectual groups in the US that exhibit evidence of a right wing gestalt, but these groups are usually cut off from the movement-conservative mainstream lest they endanger “conservative” institutes or publications by expressing improper anti-leftist ideas. This is entirely understandable, given the prevalence of leftist influences in Western societies—and given the extent to which the establishment non-left has absorbed leftist values and attitudes that come from existing in a predominantly leftist environment.

The non-left or the official Right pushes what it considers to be distinctive “conservative” positions that often have nothing to do with the essentialist Right and which are often not even true. Since many of my writings deal with this tendency, I won’t bore my readers with more of the same. But in opposition to a widespread misconception, I would argue there is no reason to define the Right as that side that asserts “values” in opposition to the Left, which is “relativistic.” I have never ceased to be amazed at how persistently and even obsessively the Left fights for its “values.” Leftists clearly believe in a certain vision of universal equality and although one might differ with them over their highest value and over the havoc it wrecks on what used to be a bourgeois Christian society, there is no doubt that a moral vision drives the Left. It is also foolish to define the Right as willing to move mountains to bring “human rights” to the entire world. Both the notion of human rights and the mission to impose them universally emerged from the classical Left, going back to the left wing of the French Revolution. The fact that such a global mission is now thought to characterize the Right underscores the utter confusion into which the drawing of right-left distinctions has been allowed to drift.

Finally, one does not join the essentialist Right by wishing to get off the train of Progress just before it arrived at our present situation. As a practical position, one might find the civil rights legislation of the 1960s less intrusive than its later additions or an earlier phase of the feminist movement less offensive than what has been called by its critics “gender feminism.” I would be the last to question someone’s right to choose a less drastic (as opposed to a more extreme) form of government social engineering, given the available choices. But one does not display one’s attachment to the Right by making such choices, save by the standards of a Left, which is perpetually trying to move everything further into its energy field.

There is also the problem of an inflated use of “conservative,” a term that is applied to whomever the media bestows it on. This certification simply increases our semantic problem. Each time I see an adolescent blogger or pubescent columnist introduced to the viewing public as a “leading conservative,” I crack the same joke to whoever is around: “I wonder whether this teenager is a follower of Burke or Maistre.” By now “conservative” signifies whatever a gaggle of journalists or news announcers decide it should mean. Journalists by virtue of taking Republican policy positions are also described as conservative theorists, although I am still struggling to find out what exactly makes such people “conservative” or “theoretical.” Presumably by defending the record of the last GOP president, one gains recognition from other journalists as a “conservative” deep thinker.

On a practical level, I can sympathize with libertarians, who think that we have “too much government,” and I have given my vote more than once to proponents of this stance. Moreover, when libertarians speak of “limited” government and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, they almost always catch my ear. The problem begins when someone rises to defend libertarian ethics or libertarian anthropology. The notion of individuals defining their values and identities, while inhabiting an imaginary state of nature, has never struck me as convincing. I’ve noticed in opposition to this libertarian worldview the impact that social and cultural forces have had on our lives. These are the forces that we do not choose to be influenced by, but which shape our beings and belief systems. In any case we bring with us a pre-existing context, even if we persist in believing that we create ourselves ex nihilo or by dint of will—and even if we sometimes retain the option of making significant choices.

Even more relevant to my argument, there is nothing right wing or even vaguely conservative about the way libertarians approach the question of liberty. Unlike the essential Right’s understanding of Aristotle or Burke, what libertarians understand as freedom is a universally shared good to which persons everywhere are entitled by virtue of being individuals. Although I would not prohibit others from espousing such a view, I’ve no idea what renders it specifically right wing. The classical conservative and rightist view of liberty (and there is a historical distinction between the two) flows from the legal implications of someone’s standing in a particular society, held together by shared custom and distributed duties.

From this view, which opponents of the French Revolution devised as a defensive argument, came a concept of socially situated liberty that has nothing to do with the current libertarian idea. What libertarians are pushing is a recognizably leftist position, which presupposes or implies the idea of universal equality and even universal citizenship. Those who could appreciate this classical conservative position, such as Russell Kirk, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddhin, and Robert Nisbet, were understandably turned off by libertarian pronouncements. They contradicted what these thinkers recognized as socially true and which smacked of principles issuing from the French Revolution. Again I am speaking here only about libertarianism as a body of dogma. I have no quarrel with the often salutary results that may arise from libertarian-minded citizens railing against administrative tyranny.

Having gone through this list of what a conservative or rightist would not believe, perhaps I should now indicate the real article. In the preface to his anthology of essays, Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Leo Strauss sets out to define the essentialist conservative worldview circa 1960. Its exponents “regard the universal and homogeneous state as either undesirable though possible, or as both undesirable and impossible.” They do not like international bodies, which they identify with the Left, and “look with greater sympathy than liberals on the particular or particularist and the heterogeneous.” This honest, accurate definition seems all the more remarkable given the fact that Strauss’s disciples have often worked to make American conservatism synonymous with a crusade to spread what they consider universal democratic values.

What Strauss said about “conservatives” would apply to the genuine Right, yet his definition should be expanded for the sake of completeness. The Right affirms inherited hierarchy, favors the particularistic while being suspicious of the universal, aims at preserving social traditions wherever possible, and opposes the Left by every means at its disposal. The Left takes the opposite positions on the first three points out of a sense of fairness, a passionate commitment to the advancement of equality, and a universalist conception of human beings. Whereas the Right believes that what Aristotle defined as the order of the household, marked by elaborately defined distinctions, is “natural,” the Left views non-egalitarian arrangement with revulsion. Leftists are delighted to call on state managers and judges to abolish anything faintly resembling such a hierarchy.

The view that the Left thinks of us as interchangeable individuals, who can be programmed to behave in a certain way, may be a bit of an overstatement. Yet something like this idea informs the leftist project. All good societies from a leftist perspective are what Michael Oakeshott called “enterprise associations,” frameworks of human interaction in which all members are encouraged or forced to think and act alike. The Left seeks to create or impose such associations (the more extensive the better), and not just because leftists crave power. I think much better of genuine leftists. They are committed to removing social, racial and gender inequalities and the more control they can accumulate, the easier it becomes for them to reconstruct or recode those who resist their plan. German social theorist Arnold Gehlen was struck how among younger Germans in the 1960s a common defining characteristic was “hypermorality.” Contrary to the misconception that such youth who frequently turned into militant antifascists had no morality, Gehlen noticed their hysterical moral zeal. This he ascribed not only to their reaction to the Nazis, depicted as German conservatives, which German educational institutions instilled. Gehlen also linked this culture of moral indignation to the detachment of its bearers from any traditional communal association and to the war in Germany, starting with the postwar occupation, against national identity.

Lest there be any confusion on this point, it seems necessary to distinguish here between highest principles and instrumental goods on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In the case of the Left there are many values that permeate its discourse, depending on the circumstances, scientific truth, secularism, freedom, etc. Leftists may in fact value all these ideals but do so in relation to their utility in advancing the Left’s highest good, which is universal equality. Thus “science” is to be promoted to the extent that it can be made to unmask the supposedly reactionary force of Christianity, which sanctions gender distinctions and privileges heterosexual marriage.

In the nineteenth century the Left opposed organized religion because it was allied to the aristocracy, or what it saw as an oppressive capitalist class. Religion, and more specifically Christianity, was also seen as standing in the way of social change that intellectuals were working to achieve. The Left also values freedom, but as Linda Raeder and Maurice Cowles show in biographies of John Stuart Mill, reformers who once embraced “liberty” and science may have espoused them as a means toward a higher end. In Mill’s case (and in this respect he may not have been unusual among Victorian reformers) science and liberty were valued as tools for emancipating the victims of traditional ideas from the shackles of “superstitions.” Mill, as Raeder explains in John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (2002), looked forward to a world of scientifically engineered Progress, in which women would be “emancipated from bondage.” In this age of perfected humanity, released from the chain of the past, presumably everyone would think like a feminist, social democratic reformer.

But science remains instrumental for the Left in terms of the pursuit of the emancipation of women and other egalitarian projects. If someone today were to point to research evidence about genetic disparities between genders or ethnic groups, the hapless performer of this faux pas would have no future in academic life or government. Biological science may be called on, but only for the proper ideological ends, that is, for those egalitarian purposes that are to be fostered in today’s predominantly leftist political and academic culture. In the same way the theory of evolution is fine for the Left as long as it can be directed against religionists.

But this hypothesis about change in the natural world becomes more problematic as soon as someone turns to a forbidden subject, say, the rootedness of gender differences that have been necessary for the perpetuation of human as well as animal life. I need not dwell on the dogmatic as well as selective character that evolutionary theory has assumed for the Left, a subject about which the philosopher of science David Stove has written an instructive work, Darwinian Fairytales (Encounter Books, 2006). Stove is particularly interested in the mythic as opposed to scientific aspects that evolutionary theory has assumed among intellectuals and journalists. And his book highlights this theory’s value as a polemical tool.

Although not as dishonest as the other side, the Right embraces its own version of an instrumental good. Having sometimes defined itself as the political expression of the doctrine of original sin, the Right has a heavy investment in traditional forms of Christianity, just as the Left does in its (manipulated) conception of science. There is no evidence that many of the great conservative theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, starting with Burke, were orthodox Christians. Nonetheless, their political worldviews would have been unthinkable without some Christian theological foundation.

The hierarchy they defended came out of the Catholic Middle Ages, in which feudal relations were intertwined with sacral significance. Worldly command corresponded to the order of the Church, which was ultimately based on the structure of Roman authority. The notion of human fallenness was invoked in an empirical as well as theological fashion to drive home the point that human beings do not have the capacity or right to reinvent themselves and their social contexts. Indeed such experiments were sinful or hubristic and likely to result in disaster. Traditional conservatives were fond of quoting Romans 15 which affirmed that “all authority is from God. It is not for naught that God delivered the sword into the hand of the magistrate.” Needless to say, the “arche” or authority here invoked by conservatives was one that was handed down over the generations.

The Left too benefited to some extent from being rooted in a Christian heritage, and the German philosopher Nietzsche scorned this religious influence as the source of the “slave morality” that animated feminism and egalitarian democracy. While the Right saw in Christianity a justification for settled authorities, the Left drew from it something far different; the vision of a world in which “the first would be last” and “the meek would inherit the Earth.” Such ideas of “social justice” could be derived from the Hebrew prophets, the Gospels, and the sharing of worldly possession in the primitive church. Unlike the Right, however, the Left hid its debt to the Western religious tradition, claiming that what it taught was scientifically grounded or came from secular sources. This denial of paternity has gone so far that Marxists and Cultural Marxists have tried to root out any explicitly Christian influences in their societies. Rarely has one seen a more dramatic working out of the Oedipal Complex. The modern Left, as Christopher Dawson and Mircea Eliade have both observed, would be unthinkable outside of the distinctly Christian (even more than Judaic) matrix in which it was formed.

Right and Left both have historical identities and essentialist definitions and it may be necessary to go into both sets of characteristics in order to make sense of our reference points. It is usually mentioned in a discussion of this type that the distinction between right and left was formalized during the French Revolution, in accordance with where political factions were placed in the National Assembly. Those who favored further revolutionary change were assigned to the left side of the amphitheater; and those who felt the process of change had gone too far and might have to be reversed sat on the right side. In the (classical) liberal July Monarchy, set up in 1830 and overthrown to make way for the French Second Republic in 1848, there were two major parliamentary factions; a party of resistance and a party of movement. This distinction encapsulates what many see (in an oversimplified fashion) as the basic difference between right and left: one is the party of standing pat or making only necessary changes while the other is trying to push a process of change already initiated that carries us away from the past.

But there was also a more ideologically based division that entered European politics; and it was reflected in what parties in England, Germany, France, and other European countries came to stand for in the course of the nineteenth century. These divisions were socially based and driven by differing visions of the social good, and they separated the parties of the aristocracy, peasantry, and established churches on the right from the self-styled liberal parties of the ascending bourgeoisie in the middle to the socialist and social democratic parties of the urban working class on the left. As the German-Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim shows in Ideology and Utopia and Das Konservative Denken, the political-social forces that became significant in the nineteenth century were accompanied by distinctive world views. They were ideal constructions to which partisan positions became inseparably linked. Although it was typically intellectuals who constructed these Weltanschauungen, those for whom they were devised recognized in them their values and interests. Over time these theoretical architectonics came to give meaning to their collective identity.

The traditional Right stood for an agrarian way of life, with a traditional authority structure and was typically allied to the Catholic Church or Protestant state churches and entrenched monarchies. This conservative Right looked mostly to the past for what Richard Weaver calls its “vision of order,” but it was also willing to offer assistance to the urban working class, which was then becoming a “social problem.” The conservative Right felt no reservations about seeking an alliance with those at the bottom of the social ladder; and it did this at least partly in reaction to the leaders of commerce and industry, who were members of an upper middle class that was replacing the aristocracy as the dominant political and social force.

It is not at all surprising that the data Karl Marx cited in Capital to prove the growing impoverishment of English workers came from accounts collected by the Tories. A party of landowners, Anglican clergy, and Oxford dons, the Tories had no qualms about detailing (and possibly even exaggerating) the suffering of those who were subject to their political foes in the Liberal Party. Tories were quite willing to have the state impose limits on the working hours of factory laborers and put child labor on the road to extinction. But, as the career of Benjamin Disraeli proves, standing firm for tariff protection for English grain and the English squirearchy could not damage a Tory political career in the mid-nineteenth century. Disraeli, who styled himself a “Tory democrat,” and who favored an alliance of the English Right with the working class, rose to political prominence in the 1840s as an opponent of the repeal of the Corn Laws, the effects of which was to keep the price of bread higher for the urban poor than would have been the case if foreign grain was available at lower prices.

All political-ideological groupings in the nineteenth century had social foundations without which they were unthinkable. Thus liberalism was the “idea of the bourgeoisie,” just as socialism developed among the working class, with assistance from intellectuals eager to bring about radical social change. Although conservatism has its origin in modern European history as a reaction to the French Revolution, while the Left defined itself initially as a defender of this revolutionary process (together with the rationalist thinking that supposedly fueled the engine of Progress), the sides that were taken were both social and ideological. Indeed these two sources of identity traveled together. Treating the bearers of worldviews apart from the concrete forms they took as social and political groups would have seemed bizarre, except for a reason that Mannheim happily furnishes. Reflective theorists, like Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Adam Müller, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, created the foundations for what became distinctive ideological worldviews; and as Mannheim notes, these constructions assumed an existence of their own, independently of the historical circumstances that gave birth to them in the early nineteenth century.

Essential to the directions in which the Right and the Left have been moving for several generations, and perhaps since the dislocations produced by the First World War, has been the uncoupling of these concepts, worldviews, and value systems from their original social grounding. Ideas that were once attached to classes and ways of life have been cut loose from their original associations and taken on changing forms within a succession of movements. Sometimes those who invoke what are already untethered worldviews look for the old reference points. Thus Kirk, Nisbet, Weaver and M.E. Bradford all point back to classical conservative societies in which their visions were grounded. Some of these theorists have tried to make at least some connection between their experienced or idealized order and what has survived of the past in our contemporary society. Such attempts however were never entirely convincing and have become less so in the present age, in which social traditions have become even weaker than they were fifty years ago.

There is of course the additional problem that the US was founded in the eighteenth-century as a liberal republic and does not have what Burke called an “ancient constitution” similar to the one found in Europe. The social world that gave birth to classical conservatism was a lot more ancient or medieval than the society that American conservatives set out to defend. One could of course find in the American past some landed aristocracy or clusters of reactionary patricians, but those who owned slaves or indentured servants or who expressed grim Calvinist theology would not be attractive to a society that values Progress and mobility. For good reason most invokers of America’s classical conservative pedigree, like Kirk, Allen Tate, M.E. Bradford, and Richard Weaver, have been men of letters rather than students of political history. They have provided a moral-aesthetic vision rather than detailed histories.

The Left has faced a similar problem to that of the Right, when its worldview became uncoupled from its nineteenth and early twentieth century social framework. The Left has ceased to be a movement of the urban working class, fighting for higher wages or nationalization of productive forces. In the last quarter of the twentieth century the European Left has become occupied by most of the same forces that have come to dominate it here: lifestyle radicals, cinematic celebrities, public sector employees, ethnic minorities, feminists and academics. Cultural Marxists have replaced real Marxists; and the protests of aggrieved feminists and gays have become far more important for the Left than the complaints of unemployed factory workers.

There is no doubt that Communists in power persecuted religious institutions harshly. They did so because they thought independent churches were threats to Communist political power and because Communism, like American liberalism, turned atheism or secularism into a state religion. But the social values of the Communist leadership and the moral attitudes it worked to propagate among its subjects often had a bourgeois appearance. Despite early experimentation in free love, the Soviet Union came eventually to instill in party officials a strict social ethic. Annie Kriegel in what is the authoritative history of the French Communist Party shows a residual Catholic influence in the way the party cadre viewed women and marriage well into the 1960s.

If the traditional French Communist party were still around, its members in all probability would have marched in the demonstrations against the legalization of gay marriage which took place in Paris in early spring. Recently the Israeli Marxist Israel Shamir, who now lives in Paris, denounced in his newsletter (April 2013) the decadent bourgeois supporters of gay rights. At the time I proclaimed to a friend only half-jokingly “This is a Marxist I would vote for.” Shamir praises Lenin for treating dismissively “women’s issues,” and he commends the Russian communists who already in the 1980s were “interacting” with the Orthodox Church “to stop the attempt to enforce the gay agenda.” Next to our “conservative Republican” journalists who have come out for gay marriage, Shamir and Lenin seem almost medieval in their views of the family.

Despite its changing forms, unlike the Right, the Left has remained politically and culturally potent, and a recognizable variant of its worldview has prevailed throughout the onetime Christian West. Part of the Left’s strength, as I began this essay by stating, can be seen in how thoroughly its ideas have seeped into what pretends to be the Right. One encounters the Left’s worldview even in what claims to be resisting its advances.

In the present dispensation, the Left holds all the good cards. Universalism, equality, human rights and managed democracy will all likely continue to be the dominant political shibboleths. Freedom will be allowed to survive to whatever extent it can be made compatible with equality. Christian institutions will be tolerated to whatever extent they teach the required values and instill obedience to a leftist state. This will happen partly because the modern state has expanded its power at the expense of intermediate institutions, including churches and communities. But this takeover has also happened, at least in part, because of the totality of the leftist vision, which embraces and works to reconstruct all aspects of life. The Left strives to expand its power not because its advocates are greedy for government favors, although admittedly there are rent seekers in its ranks and government plums that some leftists hope to see distributed. The true Left, unlike party hacks who simply want jobs or freebies, is profoundly principled. Unfortunately leftists hold principles that become toxic when carried to ever more chilling extremes. And they no longer have to worry about being stopped, if present trends continue to unfold.

The Right is far more splintered than the Left. It has few institutions or societies that it can form or reform; and even worse, it has no identity that all its current would-be occupants could recognize as their own. The Right is not only untethered but has a variety of groups fighting to define it. Although the real or essentialist Right may scorn the media-invented Right, these mainstream dwellers have the advantage of getting into nationally televised discussions. These designated “conservatives” enjoy at least some journalistic acceptance when they appear as the respectable opposition. They do not dwell on abstract concepts but provide sound bites in an age of mass communication. But the success of this artificial Right relative to a truer one arises from other circumstances as well: the non-accepted, non-aligned, or classical Right (call it what one may) cannot agree on what defines its “rightness.” Different groups within this contentious camp are holding on to fragments descended from an original worldview. Further, the warring groups point to different lost opportunities that led to their current marginalization.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that all these divided groups can claim some association with a primal conservative worldview: cultural traditionalist, rightwing anarchists, imitators of the European revolutionary right, and Christian theocrats. Some elements of the original conservative worldview continue to shape all these groups, although not necessarily the same fragments, together with differing fateful dates for when everything was believed to have gone off the skids. We are not speaking here about the Right in its original context, as the worldview that accompanied the birth of European conservatism. We are looking at the end of a process, the one in which a particular worldview, once having been separated from its original home, was selectively absorbed into a variety of movements.

Although the groups or movements within this Right continue to shun each other like rival Anabaptist or Hasidic sects, they are united by three characteristics. They all reveal some conceptual link to the original conservative worldview, when they defend inherited authority, appeal to (now broken) traditions as the source of community, and emphasize rooted identities. These groups share an instinctive dislike for the Left’s highest value, which is equality, and each is reacting to the lack of restraint with which the Left implements that value. But the marginalized groups on the right cannot agree on a strategy that all of them might pursue to push back what the Left considers to be social “Progress.”

The Left has a vision, but the Right does not. The Left believes fervently in the triumph of a Religion of Humanity, based on a universal state, in which the human condition can be standardized and homogenized through sensitive management. The Right, by contrast, has no picture of a happy future. In this sense it is different from those conventional Republicans who wish to go back to the halcyon days of Bush Two or perhaps to the glory days of the Reagan administration. The true or essentialist Right simply wants to stop an unfolding process and if possible, reverse it. Although a precise vision of order was inherent in classical conservatism, it has disappeared from the Right and has now been replaced by a sense of desperation.

This continuing loss of ground is disheartening for those who are struggling against a hostile age, and comparable developments have overtaken the independent Right, or those groups that comprise one, in some European countries. In Germany at the time of national reunification in the early 1990s, the national Right vibrated with excitement over the prospect of a unified country. Germans would at last be able to put off their sackcloth and ashes and no longer have to view themselves as a pariah nation. Their defining moment would not be their defeat in 1945, and they would no longer have to hear about the “burden” of their entire history, as a prelude to Auschwitz. They would once again be a proud, unified nation, as they were in 1871, and one that is free of both Nazi and Communist totalitarians.

Never did any Right miscalculate so badly. Former Communist functionaries and agents of the Communist secret police streamed into government positions in the Federal Republic, exchanging their pro-Soviet Communist identities for Cultural Marxist ones. A Party of the Left became a major force in German politics made up of hastily disguised Communists like Gregor Gysi. Indeed even the current chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, turns out to have been an obliging Communist, almost up until the moment when the Berlin Wall fell.* Hoping to protect themselves against the anxieties voiced by Western journalists and politicians about a resurgent German nationalism, German chancellors from Helmut Kohl to Merkel have unstintingly funded a government-organized “crusade against the Right.” This enterprise has been little more than a witch hunt directed by embattled leftists, including longtime Communists. No politician making a career in Germany would express patriotic sentiments too loudly or suggest that he or she is not eagerly awaiting the further absorption of Germany into the EU. Culturally and socially German elites have pushed their country dramatically toward the left, since reunification.

The reason is that even what may start out as propitious moments for the Right can be rapidly turned in the opposite direction without the resources to take advantage of historical situations. Throughout my career I have earned the reputation of being a spoil sport when talking to members of the genuine Right and I expect this presentation will be seen as one more illustration of the obvious. What I would say in my defense is there is value in assessing one’s obstacles before trying to climb a mountain. Today I have called to your attention the obstacle course that lies ahead for those who would forge a rightist alliance. Needless to say, I wish you success, as an engaged observer, in trying to negotiate this Herculean task.

*An explosive new book on Merkel’s career is Das Erste Leben der AM by Ralf Georg Reuth and Günther Lachmann (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2013).