A Lefty Writes In
When I think of the left, one of the first things that comes to mind is democracy. In the Spanish Civil War, for instance, although there were anarchists and communists on the Republican side (which I don’t think anyone would argue was anything but leftist), there were also people who wanted to restore and revitalize the democracy that Franco’s coup was overthrowing. I don’t think anyone on the right side of that conflict was in favor of any sort of democracy, but wanted a monarchy or a theocracy or some kind of fascist military state… Socialism is the second thing that comes to mind, from moderate well-fare measures and guaranteed health-care to full blown Marxism… The other things that come to mind are the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and women’s rights, unions and worker’s rights, minimum wage, fighting monopolies and corporate power, gay and lesbian rights, the fight to legalize interracial marriage, civil rights, environmentalism (again, using democratic governmental power to control corporate power), and animal rights. Of course, this is a small list, but it’s just an idea of the first things that come to mind. Oh yeah, how could I forget anarchism?
So what do all of these things have in common? It seems to me like they are all attempts to spread power out as equally as possible among the population. They all seem to be methods of identifying where there is a concentration of power within a small group, recognizing how this concentration comes at the expense of other, larger groups, and attempting to balance and equalize the situation as much as possible… Socialism does this in terms of economic power. Fighting corporations that exploit workers and consumers and the environment is a way to take power from a concentrated source and spread it out. Abolishing slavery took power from slave holders and attempted to spread it out among former slaves. Women’s suffrage attempted to reduce the concentration of political power in the hands of one sex and spread it out equally among both sexes. Women’s rights and civil rights movements seek to correct remaining power imbalances that remain in the form of prejudice. And so on and so on.
…The right, so far as I can tell, is the drive toward preserving and/or increasing existing power inequalities. The right believes it is natural and good that power concentrates itself in the hands of a few. The left sees this as the source of most of our problems… As it is, it appears to me that the left has proven itself the more justifiable path over and over and over again. Of course slavery was wrong, and so were monarchies, and so are racism and sexism and homophobia and speciesism. Of course worker’s rights are good, and environmental controls on corporate power, and marriage rights and health care for all. Yet all these ideas are considered absurd and dangerous and wrong by those who have gone off the right-wing and moderate deep ends - at least until the left has exerted enormous struggle to convince everyone otherwise. Eventually, even most people on the right will come around to accept as natural and good what were not too long ago extremist ideas of the looney left…
It seems to me that anyone who believes that “all men are created equal,” or, much, much more radically, that all human beings – even ones without white skin and penises – are equal, is an extreme looney leftist nutcake. So is anyone who believes in democracy, or worker’s rights, or interracial marriage. Anyone who is not an explicit racist, sexist, or homophobe is a radical leftist freak. Only most people are more comfortable, for some reason that seems to involve a complete lack of historical knowledge, to call themselves ‘moderates.’ Eventually, the moderates will accept gay marriage and animal rights, after a while, so will the conservatives. And then they will turn right around and warn of the dangerous left-wing extremists who are peeling away whatever the next, currently unperceivable, layers of prejudices will be.
My reply to the above letter (again in edited form) is below:
First of all, let me try to clarify my definitions. I generally agree with your premise that leftists have throughout history tried to democratize society both culturally and economically. Conservatives, on the other hand, try to keep economic and social power consolidated in the hands of the few. I would also agree that many of the demands made by the far left in the past, such as for progressive taxation and racial equality, are today considered mainstream, with even most conservatives embracing them. What is a radical leftist idea today will be commonplace politics tomorrow. However, there are two distinct branches of leftist thought. The first is comprised of persons who believe that social change should be brought about incrementally and democratically. These persons range in opinion from welfare state capitalists (today’s Democratic Party is a good example) to democratic socialists (as are commonly found in European parliamentary systems). I generally refer to these persons as “liberals”. Then there are the persons on the left who seek radical, immediate social and economic change, often through revolutionary activity. This group includes communists of all stripes, revolutionary socialists, and anarchists. I generically refer to these persons as “leftists” to differentiate them from liberals, although admittedly “radical leftist” might be a better term.
I think our main point of disagreement is on the historical record of radical leftism. You seem to see it as generally positive. I would describe it as uniformly dismal. One can look back to the French Revolution, which was in many ways the seminal event in the history of both liberalism and leftism. At first, everything went fairly well: The King was deposed, grain was distributed to the people, etc. Then the Jacobins pushed the liberals out of the way, and things got very unpleasant. The reign of terror lead to thousands of deaths. At its height, one could be arrested and executed for the crime of “moderateism”. The radicals tried to push for social and economic change far too quickly and brutally. The resulting chaos led to the rise of the emperor Napoleon. [More examples of failed leftist revolutions follow.]…
Finally, there are some philosophical problems with far left thought. In earlier times, the left was mostly concerned with securing the freedom of peoples from oppression: freedom from slavery, discrimination, sexism, exploitive labor, etc. Over the last hundred or so years, leftism in general has become more of a movement to secure an equality of results rather than a freedom from oppression. There are many anarchists in the US right now who favor a system in which no individual may own any sort of personal property whatsoever. Other more moderate socialists often suggest that all persons receive the same amount of pay for their jobs, regardless of the work performed. This is a recipe for social disaster. Without the incentive to earn additional income or gain more material goods, persons will have no reason to save, work hard, or take on unpleasant jobs. I say that a person who cleans sewers for a living deserves a higher paycheck than someone who writes film reviews. I also maintain that if a person leads a frugal lifestyle and reframes from buying things they don’t need, they shouldn’t be subject to asset forfeiture because they have “too much money”.
In summation: The radical left has some good ideas. Some of these ideas will be eventually be adopted by the mainstream. But left ideals are best put into practice when they are filtered through the moderating effects of liberalism. When the far left is given unfettered political power, dysfunctional and violent societies are usually the result.
So there. My revolutionary-minded friend wrote back with a reply to my reply. If I feel like inflicting some more heavy political theory on the readers of this blog, I’ll post it here after I compose another response of my own.