Is it too much to say that since the French Revolution, the left has been the source of virtually all political evils, and continues to be so in our day?
There can be no doubt that great cruelty and violence can be and have been inflicted in the name of preserving the existing order.
But when we compare even the worst enormities of the more distant past with the leftist totalitarian revolutions and total wars of the twentieth centuries, they are in general a mere blip. The entire history of the Inquisition, said Joe Sobran, barely rises to the level of what the communists accomplished on a good afternoon.
The French Revolution, and particularly its radical phase, was the classic manifestation of modern leftism and served as the model for still more radical revolutions around the world more than a century later.
As that revolution proceeded its aims grew more ambitious, with its most fervent partisans demanding nothing less than the total transformation of society.
In place of the various customs and settled ways of a France with well over a millennium of history behind it, the radical revolutionaries introduced a “rational” alternative cooked up in their heads, and with all the warmth of an insane asylum.
Streets named after saints were given new names, and statues of saints were actually guillotined. (These people guillotining statues were the rational ones, you understand.) The calendar itself, rich with religious feasts, was replaced by a more “rational” calendar with 30 days per month, divided into three ten-day weeks, thereby doing away with Sunday. The remaining five days of the year were devoted to secular observances: celebrations of labor, opinion, genius, virtue, and rewards.
Punishments for deviations from the new dispensation were as severe as we have come to expect from leftism. People were sentenced to death for owning a Rosary, giving shelter to a priest, or indeed refusing to abjure the priesthood.
We are plenty familiar with the guillotine, but the revolutionaries concocted still other forms of execution as well, like the Drownings at Nantes, designed to humiliate and terrorize their victims.
Given that the left has sought the complete transformation of society, and given that such wholesale change is bound to come up against the resistance of ordinary people who don’t care for having their routines and patterns of life overturned, we should not be surprised that the instrument of mass terror has been the weapon of choice. The people must be terrified into submission, and so broken and demoralized that resistance comes to seem impossible.
Likewise, it’s no wonder the left needs the total state. In place of naturally occurring groupings and allegiances, it demands the substitution of artificial constructs. In place of the concrete and specific, the Burkean “little platoons” that emerge organically, it imposes remote and artificial substitutes that emerge from the heads of intellectuals. It prefers the distant central government to the local neighborhood, the school board president over the head of household.
Thus the creation of the departments, totally subordinate to Paris, during the French Revolution was a classic leftist move. But so were the totalitarian megastates of the twentieth century, which demanded that people’s allegiances be transferred from the smaller associations that had once defined their lives to a brand new central authority that had grown out of nowhere.
The right (properly understood), meanwhile, according to the great classical liberal Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “stands for free, organically grown forms of life.”
The right stands for liberty, a free, unprejudiced form of thinking; a readiness to preserve traditional values (provided they are true values); a balanced view of the nature of man, seeing in him neither beast nor angel, insisting on the uniqueness of human beings which cannot be transformed into or treated as mere numbers or ciphers. The left is the advocate of the opposite principles; it is the enemy of diversity and the fanatical promoter of identity. Uniformity is stressed in all leftist utopias, paradises in which everybody is the same, envy is dead, and the enemy is either dead, lives outside the gates, or is utterly humiliated. Leftism loathes differences, deviations, stratifications…. The word “one” is its symbol: one language, one race, one class, one ideology, one ritual, one type of school, one law for everybody, one flag, one coat of arms, one centralized world state.
Is Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s description partly out of date? After all, who touts their allegiance to “diversity” more than the left? But the left’s version of diversity amounts to uniformity of an especially insidious kind. No one may hold a dissenting view about the desirability of “diversity” itself, of course, and “diverse” college faculties are chosen not for their diversity of viewpoints but precisely for their dreary sameness: left-liberals of all shapes and sizes. What’s more, by demanding “diversity” and proportional representation in as many institutions as possible, the left aims to make all of America exactly the same.
Leftists have long been engaged in a bait-and-switch operation. First, they said they wanted nothing but liberty for all. Liberalism was supposed to be neutral between competing worldviews, seeking only an open marketplace of ideas in which rational people could discuss important questions. It did not aim to impose any particular vision of the good.
That claim was exploded quickly enough when the centrality of government-run education to the left-liberal program became obvious. Progressive education in particular aimed to emancipate children from the superstitions of competing power centers (parents, church, or locality, among others) and transfer their allegiance to the central state.
Of course, the leftist yearning for equality and uniformity played a role as well. There is the story of the French Minister of Education who, looking at his watch, tells a guest, “At this moment in 5,431 public elementary schools, they are writing an essay on the joys of winter.”
As Kuehnelt-Leddihn put it:
Church schools, parochial schools, private schools, personal tutors, none is in keeping with leftist sentiments. The reasons are manifold. Not only is delight in statism involved, but also the idea of uniformity and equality — the idea that social differences in education should be eliminated and all pupils be given a chance to acquire the same knowledge, the same type of information, in the same fashion, and to the same degree. This should enable them to think in identical or at least in similar ways.
As time has passed, leftists have bothered less and less to pretend to be neutral between competing social visions. This is why conservatives who accuse the left of moral relativism have it so wrong. Far from relativistic, the left is absolutist in its demands of conformity to strict moral codes.
For example, when it declares “transgender” persons to be the new oppressed class, everyone is expected to stand up and salute. Left-liberals do not argue that support for transgender people may be a good idea for some people but bad for others. That’s what they’d say if they were moral relativists. But they’re not, so they don’t.
And it is not simply that dissent is not tolerated. Dissent cannot be acknowledged. What happens is not that the offender is debated until a satisfactory resolution is achieved. He is drummed out of polite society without further ado. There can be no opinion apart from what the left has decided.
Now it’s true: the left can’t remind us often enough of the tolerant, non-judgmental millennials from whom this world of ubiquitous bigotry can learn so much. So am I wrong to say that the left, and particularly the younger left, is intolerant?
In fact, we are witnessing the least tolerant generation in recent memory. April Kelly-Woessner, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College who has researched the opinions of the millennials, has come up with some revealing findings. If we base how tolerant a person is on how he treats those he disagrees with — an obviously reasonable standard — the millennials fare very poorly.
Yes, the millennials have great sympathy for the official victim groups whose causes are paraded before them in school and at the movies. That’s no accomplishment since millennials agree with these people. But how do they treat and think about those with whom they disagree? A casual glance at social media, or at leftist outbursts on college campuses, reveals the answer.
Incidentally, who was the last leftist speaker shouted down by libertarians on a college campus?
Answer: no one, because that never happens. If it did, you can bet we’d be hearing about it until the end of time.
On the other hand, leftists who terrorize their ideological opponents are simply being faithful to the mandate of Herbert Marcuse, the 1960s leftist who argued that freedom of speech had to be restricted in the case of anti-progressive movements:
Such discrimination would also be applied to movements opposing the extension of social legislation to the poor, weak, disabled. As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for “the other side,” I maintain that there are issues where either there is no “other side” in any more than a formalistic sense, or where “the other side” is demonstrably “regressive” and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.
Even much of what passes as conservatism today is tainted by leftism. That’s certainly the case with the neoconservatives: can you imagine Edmund Burke, the fountainhead of modern conservatism, supporting the idea of military force to spread human rights around the world?
Talk to neoconservatives about decentralization, secession, nullification, and you’ll get exactly the same left-wing replies you’d hear on MSNBC.
Now I can imagine the following objection to what I’ve said: whatever we may say about the crimes and horrors of the left, we cannot overlook the totalitarianism of the right, manifested most spectacularly in Nazi Germany.
But in fact, the Nazis were a leftist party. The German Workers’ Party in Austria, the forerunner of the Nazis, declared in 1904: “We are a liberty-loving nationalistic party that fights energetically against reactionary tendencies as well as feudal, clerical, or capitalistic privileges and all alien influences.”
When the party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or the Nazis, its program included the following:
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party is not a worker’s party in the narrow sense of the term: It represents the interests of all honestly creative labor. It is a liberty-loving and strictly nationalist party and therefore fights against all reactionary trends, against ecclesiastical, aristocratic, and capitalist privileges and every alien influence, but above all against the overpowering influence of the Jewish-commercial mentality in all domains of public life….
It demands the amalgamation of all regions of Europe inhabited by Germans into a democratic, social-minded German Reich….
It demands plebiscites for all key laws in the Reich, the states and provinces….
It demands the elimination of the rule of Jewish bankers over business life and the creation of national people’s banks with a democratic administration.
This program, wrote Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “oozes the spirit of leveling leftism: it was democratic; it was anti-Habsburg (it demanded the destruction of the Danube monarchy in favor of the Pan-German program); it was against all unpopular minorities, an attitude that is the magnetism of all leftist ideologies.”
The leftist obsession with “equality” and leveling means the state must insinuate itself into employment, finance, education, private clubs — pretty much every nook and cranny of civil society. In the name of diversity, every institution is forced to look exactly like every other one.
The left can’t ever be satisfied because its creed is a permanent revolution in the service of unattainable ends like “equality.” People of different skills and endowments will reap different rewards, which means constant intervention into civil society. Moreover, equality vanishes the moment people begin freely exchanging money for the goods they desire, so again: the state must be involved in everything, at all times.
Moreover, each generation of liberals undermines and scoffs at what the previous one took for granted. The revolution marches on.
Leftism is, in short, a recipe for permanent revolution, and of a distinctly anti-libertarian kind. Not just anti-libertarian. Anti-human.
And yet all the hatred these days is directed at the right.
To be sure, libertarians are fully at home neither on the left nor the right as traditionally understood. But the idea that both sides are equally dreadful, or amount to comparable threats to liberty, is foolish and destructive nonsense.
Originally published on July 5, 2016.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and editor of LewRockwell.com. He is the author of Against the State: an Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.