History, Politics

How the Politics of the Left Lost Its Way

One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and set up the first long-lasting Marxist government. The Russian Revolution’s impact was wide-ranging. One important – and overlooked – effect was how it changed the idea of the term “Left” in political terminology. Following the Bolshevik takeover, the term Left became more strongly associated with collectivism and public ownership.

But originally the term Left meant something quite different. Indeed, collectivism or public ownership are not exclusive to the Left. The word fascism derives from the fasces symbol of Ancient Rome, a bundle of rods containing an axe, which signify collective strength.

The British Union of Fascists originally used the fasces on its flag.

Another effect of 1917 was to undermine further the democratic credentials of the Left. These had already been undermined by early socialists such as Robert Owen, who had been opposed to democracy. After Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, part of the Left was linked to totalitarian regimes with human rights abuses, execution without trial, little freedom of expression and arbitrary confiscation of property.

Origins of Left and Right

The political terms Left and Right originated in the French Revolution. In 1789, in the National Constituent Assembly, deputies most critical of the monarchy began to gather on the seats to the left of the president’s chair. Conservative supporters of the aristocracy and the monarchy congregated on the right side.

Those on the right wished to maintain the authority of the crown by means of a royal veto, to preserve some rights of the aristocracy, to have an unelected upper house, and to maintain major property and tax qualifications for voting.

Those on the left wished to limit the powers of the monarchy and to create a democratic republic. They demanded an end to aristocratic privileges and limitations to the powers of the church and the state.

Hence Left originally meant liberty, human rights, and equality under the law. It meant opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, state monopolies, and other institutionalised privileges. The original Left opposed justifications of authority derived from religion or from noble birth. It supported democracy and private enterprise.

France’s Estates General, the precursor to the National Constituent Assembly.

Ostensibly, the Left has always stood for equality. But what does this mean? Does it mean equality under the law? Such equality was explicitly denied by Karl Marx and his followers, who argued that after the revolution the bourgeois class should be denied legal rights. This was put into practice after the revolution in Russia in 1917.

The pursuit of equality is not confined to socialists. Liberals such as Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill promoted the more equal distribution of income and wealth, as well as equality under the law. Liberals favour markets and private property, partly because they help protect individual autonomy. So can liberals be described as Left? Today’s Left has become so widely associated with public ownership that it would not include radical liberals in its broad movement.

The term Right has also shifted in meaning, from nationalist and traditionalist apologies for the privileges of aristocracy, to greater advocacy of free markets and private ownership, which ironically had been the territory of the original Left of 1789.

Wrong turnings?

The Marxist government in Russia quickly evolved into a one-party state. A regime of purges and terror ensued. I argue in my book Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost that a slide towards totalitarianism is inevitable within Marxism. This is because the Marxist concept of class struggle and its proposal for a proletarian government undermines the notion of universal human rights, developed in the Enlightenment and proclaimed in the French Revolution.

Communism has co-opted the Left.

By the 1970s some on the Left went further, to oppose any export of Western ideas, and to reject any notion that poorer countries deserved to enjoy the same human rights that were promoted in Europe and North America. Proposals to extend these rights or values were seen as apologies for “Western imperialism”. And, in their enthusiasm for “anti-imperialist struggles” many on the Left supported terrorists and religious extremists, including the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah and the regime in Iran. This is far from the views of the original Left.

Of course, people that consider themselves as Left-leaning are not obliged to follow the ideas of the original Left. But it is important to understand how strains of Left thinking have twisted and turned from their original source. And recognise that alternatives are possible – particularly when the language of politics today is so broken. George Orwell wrote in 1946:

One … ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

The term Left has gone through major changes of meaning in the last two centuries. With this decay there has been a large degree of chaos. Meanwhile parties on the Left around the world are in crisis as a result of ideological fragmentation. If we are to have progressive change in society we need to first reconfigure the political map and no longer be restricted by what has come to define Left and Right.

 

Geoffrey M Hodgson is a Research Professor, Hertfordshire Business School at the University of Hertfordshire.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

15 Comments

  1. Grumpy Liberal says

    Who’d have thought you need more than one bit of information to discuss political ideas?

  2. joshcarr22 says

    There’s so many misconceptions it’s hard to keep up.
    Why is the left called Liberal in US but not in Australia?
    How does the left decent into the total opposite of what it’s trying to achieve, totalitarianism?
    Did marx really plan to deny the rights to the bourgeoisie? I.e. equality or collectivism

    • Taupe Pope says

      The Left is called ‘liberal’ in the US for two reasons: They were socially liberal. ‘Liberal’ here meaning, untethered to traditional values, in the Progressive Era they supported abortion and eugenics, later on desegregation and gay rights. It’s what the communists among them called themselves during the Cold War and McCarthy years.

      Idk how exactly but you shouldn’t think of the Left as a particular class of people whose ideas suddenly changed. As the original leftism became mainstream and institutionally entrenched extolling its virtues became an exercise in conservatism. Monarchism and aristocracy fell by the wayside and new ideas became The Left. Totalitarianism was not always seen as negatively as we who have the benefit of hindsight see it. Before it was implemented the total state i.e. a government that provided everything its citizens needed was seen as a panacea for the suffering in society.

      I seem to remember old Karl predicting that the transition from capitalism to communism would indeed be despotic.

  3. Samuel Skinner says

    “Hence Left originally meant liberty, human rights, and equality under the law. ”

    No, that was the slogans the left used, just like the Bolsheviks had similar slogans (look at the Soviet constitutions). The French Revolutionaries were opposed to the death penalty until they were in power; at which point they were good with executing people for treason.

    This isn’t confined to France. The Founding Fathers were pro-free speech (Bill of Rights, 1791) and proceeded to ban criticism of the government (Alien and Sedition Acts, 1798).

  4. Erik Simon says

    Yeah, for a website dedicated to the center, I notice the Left is taking more of a beating on Quillette (and make no mistake: I think this is a FABULOUS website of really incredibly written material). For instance, yesterday I read that I’m supposed to be compassionate to Creationist Christians in order to get them to be open to Evolution, but no such compassion is recommended for the whacko Left students on campus opposed to free speech (and they are whacko). For what it’s worth, I’m the son of a minister raised in the Bible belt, and my experience is that both sides are suffering from a cult-like delusion of thinking that compassion likely won’t ease them out of. As John Boehner said recently in a marvelous piece on him in Politico, it will likely take cataclysm.

    Meanwhile, back to this piece, I hear about the crazy Left as if, in America, we on the left keep nominating crazy people to be President or Vice-President, as if we’re the party now wanting to appoint a radio talk show host with no scientific background as the USDA’s top scientist, as if . . . the list could go on. It was a nice, token mention of the Right at the end of this article, but how about we discuss how great swathes of the Right in America has been commandeered by Libertarian thinking (at the behest of billionaires who equate civic responsibility with serfdom), and is there anything in the world more daffy than a Libertarian? Seriously, if corporations are just left alone, they will choose not to pollute because it’s in their self-interest? Yeah, history bears that out. And that’s just exhibit A. (I’m not even going to waste time on the infiltration of explicit white nationalism in the American Right.)

    I’m sure Mr. Hodgson’s book will be well worth reading, but in America, one grows a tad weary of hearing about how crazy the Left is when the crazy Right is in charge. Yes, we on the Left have some dangerous whackos, and we are causing some real problems, especially on campus, but our whackos aren’t the ones holding high elected positions. Our whackos aren’t yet mainstream.

    • RE: “and is there anything in the world more daffy than a Libertarian?”

      Haven’t been on campus for while, have you, or seen the awful carnage of Guam tipping over from the weight of too many soldiers, or a US flag flying on Mars? Yes my freind, there are many many things more daffy than a Libertarian? Or did you mean idiotic?

    • Our whackos aren’t yet mainstream.

      -Chris Cuomo
      -Freferica Wilson
      -Olbermann
      -John Kerry
      -Snoop Dog
      -Maxine Waters
      -Ta-Nehisi Coates and anybody that considers him deep
      -Paul Krugman
      -All the radical left-wing kooks that abandoned, raised or mentored young Barry Obama
      -Luis Vicente Gutiérrez
      -Jennifer Rubin
      -Barbra Boxer
      -Linda Sarsour
      -Heather Digby Parton
      -Joan Walsh
      -Rosa DeLauro
      -Lisa Jackson
      -Lois Lerner
      -Any and all victims studies professors + diversity and inclusion officers.
      -Harvey W.
      Larry O’donnel
      -DW Shultz
      -Kathy Griffen
      -Alan Grayson
      -ManBearPig
      -Mark Dayton
      -Harry Reid
      -Kieth Ellison
      -CNN
      -The late Helen Thomas
      -Jorge Ramos
      -Justin Trudeu and his Castro loving father

      See? It’s an easy game to play when the terms are subjective. One man’s whacko terrorist sympathizer is an other man’s (you, apparently ) mainstream, respected organizer of the Woman’s March.

    • Robert Paulson says

      Even though the Right is in power in government, the Left dominates our education system, making it much more dangerous in the long run because it is where ideas and values are passed on to the next generation. Take a look at our college campuses today because it is a preview of what the entire society is going to look like in 20 years as the older generations are replaced by millennials and generation Z’ers.

      • Samuel Skinner says

        Trump supports gay marriage and is fine with transexuals.He is further to the left socially then any other president in American history.

    • Samuel Skinner says

      “It was a nice, token mention of the Right at the end of this article, but how about we discuss how great swathes of the Right in America has been commandeered by Libertarian thinking (at the behest of billionaires who equate civic responsibility with serfdom), and is there anything in the world more daffy than a Libertarian? ”

      Trump is a populist, not a libertarian. ‘We need to bring the jobs back to America’ is not libertarian. ‘Free trade is bad’ is not libertarian. Trump’s goal more resembles China then Libertarianism.

      “(I’m not even going to waste time on the infiltration of explicit white nationalism in the American Right.)”

      Well, the Democrats have explicit Hispanic and black nationalism so I’m not sure what is the surprise. Ethnic diversity erodes social trust and eventually whites will start voting as a block, just like in every other ethnically diverse country.

    • Carl Grover says

      Erik, I can see where you are coming from, but believe the dialogue here does not match your assertions. Certainly, there is zealotry on each side. I don’t find that Quillette is forum for political left bashing, but a place to reason against left social ideolgies, hence some contributors being politically left. Damore is a great example if what I mean. The 4 scientists who contend that he “mostly” gets the science right, are they themselves not absolutely political conservatives, or even centrists. Yet, they come out to oppose the left ideological zealotry. There are political leftists who oppose cosmic justice. To me, forums like this are the closest to intellectual honesty, and thoughtful, well-intended debate.

      In the grand scheme of things, I find those more closely aligned to the right, to be more reasoned, open for dialogue, etc. Haidt does well to describe this trend in Moral Foundations Theory. Sowell also, has been writing on this for years. Those on the right have beliefs, and many common and shared beliefs are backed by science, hence support for Damore. The left far too often relies upon the “Prevailing Vision”, or, “it just is this way”, and no empirical evidence will tell them otherwise. When your views are based on feelings and altruism, and are devoid of investigation into data, it falls apart. Since they claim the moral high-ground, backed in a corner (meaning people are opposing them) it’s fight or flight (hence, antifa). The debate is over, and the only thing left is too battle.

      Ultimately, even if this publication were very right, I would challenge anyone to find a publication on the left with this level of intellectual honesty and the mature, thoughtful commenta sections that are more typical than not, here.

    • I highly recommend this book on Libertarianism: https://www.amazon.com/Libertarianism-What-Everyone-Needs-Know-ebook/dp/B009INECOA

      I used to be a Democrat, then supported the Green Party, but am now surprised to find myself leaning Libertarian (in the “soft libertarian/classic liberal” sense). I think you’d be surprised by the case this book makes for small government. Short answer: people are self-interested, and that doesn’t change when they start governing. Thus, power given to the government is power given to self-interested people. The largest corporations can purchase the power from these people and write regulations that favor their interests over smaller competitors. Thus, more power for the government means more power that can be hijacked by the highest bidder (hence, the corporate state). That was my take on it, anyway, and it makes sense to me.

  5. Carl Sageman says

    Erik,

    I partially agree with your sentiment. However, you and I see things very differently. I distrust the right, but, the left is totally out of control. Let me illustrate.

    In this article, a senior DNC staffer said not to hire white males.

    http://www.dailywire.com/news/22939/exclusive-dnc-official-discriminates-against-elliott-hamilton#

    The real scandal is that not one single mainstream media outlet has discussed this. Other than thehill, it’s not even rated a mention! That’s real power when you can openly be so racist and sexist and it not even be challenged, anywhere across the world’s media outlets.

    Something is fundamentally broken because this keeps happening (eg. James Damore’s memo praised by experts, universally condemned by the world’s media when they ignored expert commentary).

    Quillette is maintaining excellent moderation. The left is extremely destructive. However, the right is planting its seeds of unfettered free market while also being the voice of reason in many other ways.

    The much bigger risk at this time is the left. However, you are correct in saying the right should be watched too.

    I personally loved this article. Quillette delivers fairly consistently. Who else even comes close to this level of rational discourse?

    Minor point. A feminist recently wrote an article here saying feminists believe in equal opportunity. Given the link above, now is the time for feminists to prove it! This news had been out there for days. Feminists remain silent. Not looking good. I’m leaning toward Myth Busted.

  6. yandoodan says

    Robert Owen is a complex character (as your link points out) and reducing him to “opposed to democracy” is unfair. His life and political philosophy has two distinct parts: an earlier one, when he owned the large cotton mill at New Lanark, and the period after. The “New Lanark” Owen invented an entire system of treating workers humanely, ensuring their health and well-being, and providing for their mental improvement. This was necessarily paternalistic. It also showed that you could treat your workers extremely well indeed and still make a very large profit. Turnover at New Lanark was microscopic, productivity was high, and recruitment of the best workers was easy.

    Given that, it should be of no surprise to anyone that his post-Lanark philosophy echoed this experience — Utopian, paternalistic, but above all practical.

    https://britishheritage.com/utopian-new-lanark/

  7. Good to see that a professor from my University, a professor with whom I am well familiar expresses this point of view. However, this point of view isn’t new and very well rhymes with the one expressed by Fukuyama in his “Future of History” chapter “The absent left: ” The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.”

    FOREIGN AFFAIRS January/February 2012 [591
    HeinOnline — 91 Foreign Aff. 59 2012
    Francis Fukuyama

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