About the 'Real' Left?
by Anthony Gregory: Independence
I criticize the left for being soft on the police state and war
machine, I’m chastised for confusing moderate Democrats with the
"real left." I’m told that the true left is consistently
antiwar and holds no brief for Barack Obama or his party. I heard
this again in response to my recent LRC column, "Why
the Left Fears Libertarianism."
It sounds good,
and there is a whiff of truth to it. The civil libertarian lawyers
taking the administration to task for his detention policy, many
journalists exposing the evils of the war and corporate state, and
radical scholars in academia see themselves as being on the left,
and they are often critical of the regime for sound reasons. Tom
Woods estimates, perhaps jokingly, that the number of principled
folks on the left must be somewhere around 37. I let him know that
I found this to be an optimistically high figure.
the principled voices on the left are a distinct minority. If a
handful of liberal bloggers, seditious historians, criminal defense
attorneys and ex-Marxist journalists are all the "true left"
is reduced to, then I suppose this country is over 97% conservative.
Some will respond,
as they often do, that this is an unfair characterization of "true
conservatism"! Indeed, every time I condemned Bush’s profligacy
and foreign aggression, I was taken to task for calling his administration
"conservative." You see, "true conservatives"
oppose unprovoked wars, violations of the Bill of Rights, state
intrusion into personal affairs, big government programs of all
kinds, corporate welfare, and everything else the Republican Party
has dedicated itself to for 150 years.
Give it up,
guys. According to common use, and in actual practice, conservatism
loves the military and police state and leftism loves leviathan,
and ultimately this means both camps accept the fundamental premises
and key policies of the modern state.
have tried to put our philosophy on one side of the spectrum or
the other. Are we, like the Old Right, the true conservatives? Or
are we the real left, as Rothbard suggested in his very important
and Right: The Prospects for Liberty"? I am more open to
the latter interpretation as a matter of historical dialectics,
but what is its relevance today? My friend Jeff Riggenbach has carried
the flame of this interpretation, making as good a case as has been
made in recent years. He writes in his great book American
History is Not What They Say:
look at the history of the relevant political terms – Left and
Right, liberal and conservative – will persuade us that libertarianism
has absolutely nothing in common with anything on the Right. For
it is as the anarchist Murray Bookchin said back in 1978: "People
who resist authority, who defend the rights of the individual,
who try in a period of increasing totalitarianism and centralization
to reclaim these rights – this is the true left in the United
States. Whether they are anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists,
or libertarians who believe in free enterprise, I regard theirs
as the real legacy of the left […]." And what about the socialists,
the Maoists and Trotskyites, and the liberals of the Democratic
party? Bookchin was asked. What about the people most Americans
regarded as "the Left"? Those people, Bookchin replied,
were "going toward authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism."
They were "becoming the real right in the United States."
was referring here to a conception of Western political history
in which, as Karl Hess had put it a few years earlier, on "the
far right […] we find monarchy, absolute dicatorships, and other
forms of absolutely authoritarian rule," while the Left "opposes
the concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates
and works toward the distribution of power into the maximum number
of hands." Just as the farthest Right you can go is absolute
dictatorship, Hess argued, so "[t]he farthest left you can
go, historically at any rate, is anarchism – the total opposition
to any institutionalized powetary social organization […]."
This is all
well and good, but does anyone today go about his day as though
this schematic held ground? How useful is it to say Ron Paul is
to the left of Nancy Pelosi, that Barry Goldwater was to the left
of Fidel Castro, that Pat Buchanan is to the left of Rachel Maddow?
I think the
problem arises in assuming leftism or rightism pertains primarily
to what one thinks of state coercion. A better, richer explanation
of left and right, one that reconciles Rothbard’s exposition with
our understanding of today’s political spectrum, can be found in
Brian Patrick Mitchell’s 8
Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right.
written, in my opinion, the best explanation of the political spectrum.
It makes sense of all the major mysteries: why left-liberals are
opposed to the major threats to liberty in one instance, then switch
over to the side of tyranny, allowing conservatives to seemingly
fill the gap in the power dynamic; why conservatives favor some
liberties and not others; where libertarians fit in all this. He
surveys the history of Western politics, shedding light on centuries
of shifting alliances and political orientations from antiquity
through the Protestant Reformation to the American Revolution, the
1960s, and modern times.
What is most
illuminating is that left and right are not actually defined in
terms of how much one favors the state. Rather, the conventional
spectrum relates to views toward social hierarchy, tradition and
egalitarianism. Defining "archê" in terms of social
hierarchy and "kratos" in terms of state power, Mitchell
writes: "As it happens, our conventional distinction of Left
and Right is mostly a matter of archê and not kratos."
that matter most to the Right are inherently archical and paternal:
family and church for republicans, commercial corporations and
government itself for plutocrats. Among government agencies, the
Right is more inclined to trust rank-conscious agencies like the
military and the police, and the executive branch in general.
the Left is more at ease with the free-for-all of democratic politics
and less comfortable with archical agencies, which it disdains
So there is
the traditional spectrum of left and right, which used to coincide
well with those who favored liberty and those who opposed it, since
all hierarchical groups – the church, clan, the economic centers
of authority – were more closely identified with political power.
In the last couple hundred years, the state has become conceptually
and materially separated from these institutions, especially the
church, which has led to the shifting meanings of left and right.
Mitchell builds a vertical axis to complement the horizontal one,
a new spectrum that signifies one’s support for or opposition to
coercion, especially state coercion, orthogonal to his regard for
Thus when a
radical leftist supports using the state for ends he deems appropriate,
just like his mirror image theocon on the right, both of whom are
on neither extreme vertically regarding state power as an end it
itself, it all makes internal sense:
Theocon, the Radical justifies the use of force by its ends. If
it frees us from the tyranny of tradition, greed, and archy, it
is good; if it strengthens the hand of the repressive social or
commercial order, it is bad. Prayer in public schools is bad,
but sex education in the same schools is good. Campaign finance
reform is good, but "censorship" in public funding of
the arts is bad. Again, the inconsistency only exists for the
more politically minded, who see the world quite differently than
both the Theocon and the Radical.
The left tends
to favor those rights that are "new" – such as sexual
liberties – and look upon older freedoms, like the right to bear
arms, with suspicion. The conservative reverses this predisposition.
The policies advocated by both left and right are not guided primarily
by a concern for liberty, or statism for its own sake, but by a
desire to shape society along the lines they envision, whether through
expanding government or retracting it.
book explains communitarians, paleocons, individualists, and left
anarchists so as to bring logic to all these seemingly inexplicable
groups. The paleolibertarian, Mitchell explains, is primarily concerned
with opposing the state. Unlike the radical left he is not necessarily
hostile to social authority and unlike the right he is at peace
with letting voluntarism sort things out.
darkly critical of existing governments, the Paleolib is confident
of man’s ability to live without government. He believes that
virtually everything that governments have tried to manage – from
lighthouses to law enforcement – can be better managed by private
persons or groups. . . .
is. . . inclined against using force to defend traditional religion
and morality. Although close to the Paleoconservative in overall
outlook, the Paleolib trusts that the social order will not need
defending once the threat of government is removed.
Bush years, the biggest governmental threat in America was the right
– the red-state fascists, as Lew Rockwell aptly called them. The
threat of modern conservatism is still about as stark as it was
back then, and it can always seize power and once again become the
principal and pressing danger to freedom.
But under Obama
we have seen the reinvigoration of the progressive left – perhaps
the worst element of the left. It distrusts social authority, but
not as much as the radical left, and not when that social authority
– corporations, unions, even religious institutions – can be co-opted
for the purpose of advancing the state. The progressives truly are
the tradition that destroyed liberalism in America, erected a national
police state, embraced corporatism in the disingenuous name of egalitarianism,
and turned the U.S. into a global empire.
This is why
it is so funny to hear lefties complain that my condemnations of
the left are only accurate for liberals, and not progressives. Liberals
have a proud heritage. So do radicals. Progressives, on the other
hand, have always been enemies of individual freedom and peace,
and they are unfortunately the dominant strain on the American left
Back in 2007,
running to be president, Hillary Clinton had a very insightful comment
when asked if she would define herself as a liberal:
it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom,
that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing
to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual.
in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and
it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big
government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th
and early 20th century.
the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning,
going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th
failed to mention was that it was progressivism that dirtied the
name of liberalism forever, turning it into a synonym for big-government
enthusiasm. This is the party and agenda of Barack Obama and the
overwhelming majority of Democratic voters. The self-styled progressives
say they are somehow more principled in their opposition to Big
Brother and empire than are the liberals, but we can understand
why so many of them caved and supported the war in Libya, the corporatist
health care scheme, even some of the extreme violations of civil
liberties: Like Teddy Roosevelt, a man most of today’s progressives
seem to think was a great president, they are dedicated to centralized
social engineering, executive supremacy, and military power abroad.
They distrust these apparatuses in the hands of conservatives, but
would rather risk that fate than do anything to retract their power.
As for the
liberals who are moderate enough not to be completely partisan,
they also tend to be softer on the state and more comfortable with
the status quo than their comrades further to the left. They are
not as anti-property rights as anyone else on the left, but they
are not as anti-corporatism either. They have a tendency to talk
up "good government" and "respectability" that
renders them weak critics even of Republican rule.
And the radicals?
They are perhaps the best in opposing the police, the military,
and crony capitalism, but their hostility to property rights makes
them unreliable bulwarks against state oppression. Social hierarchy
can be dangerous, and it becomes a total nightmare when it is in
bed with government. But it can also be instrumental in organizing
society without violence and protecting liberty against government.
Also important, the anti-hierarchical left, while it can be libertarian
in some circumstances and makes wonderful contributions to our understanding
of liberty through its critiques of the interventionist status quo,
can also become an outright terror to society, for nothing has been
more totalitarian than the forced abolition of traditional order
through the state, from the Cultural Revolution to Pol Pot’s program
to destroy modern civilization completely.
In the United
States, the left’s animosity toward social conservatism leads them
to miss the boat all too often. With the exception of a few radicals,
most of the left either looked the other way or were outright supportive
of the Clinton regime when it unleashed the worst law enforcement
atrocity in the last couple generations: the mass murder of 83 civilians
just outside Waco, Texas, in 1993. The fact that the victims were
a religious minority with guns clouded the judgment of all of the
left – progressives, radicals, liberals and Democrats – except for
those of the utmost integrity. The common left-liberal reaction
to Waco should remind us of the limits to leftist civil libertarianism.
So it is no
surprise that most of the left, ambivalent at best on private property
rights and opposed to the right for cultural reasons, has allowed
the progressives to rule their side of the spectrum for so long,
despite the state capitalism, corporate welfare, civil liberties
violations, militarism and sellouts even on some of the social issues.
Since the left sees itself as being opposed to the right, since
the Democrats and their progressive supporters have come to corner
the market on large-scale national opposition to conservative politics,
and because it is always easier in the political arena to push for
programs that expand power rather than shrink it, the ascendance
of the iron-fisted left should perplex no one.
In the end,
Mr. Libertarian himself, Walter Block, has it correct: The natural
party of liberty is neither on the left nor right. Jeff Tucker made
the crucial point as it concerns our eternal enemy, the right, on
April 2004. There might have been a few anomalously good conservatives
in the past, Tucker
If you favor liberty, if you oppose the rise of the total state
in our times, call yourself something else. If you understand
the central point about social organization and civilization –
namely that society can organize itself on its own in the absence
of a central state – there is a tradition of thought for you,
and it doesn't call itself conservatism.
This is true
as well of leftism. If you oppose war, corporatism, monopoly privilege,
theocracy, and the police state, you might be a liberal of the old
sort, but give up calling yourself a leftist. Even better, recognize
that the free market is the only economic system compatible with
human rights, anti-violence and mass prosperity, and take the red
pill of libertarianism.
Gregory [send him mail]
is research editor at the Independent
lives in Oakland, California. See his
webpage for more articles and personal information.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
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