“Is there anyone who can give a clear definition of Leftist or Rightist doctrine with which even half of those who consider themselves to be on the Left or the Right would agree? I am inclined to doubt it…”
few centuries ago, Europe was afflicted by religious conflicts of such intensity that they culminated in a struggle—known to history as the Thirty Years’ War—in which around a third of the inhabitants of its central region were killed. Subsequently, everyone agreed that the only solution to the trouble was for each state to recognize the rights of other states to have their own religion, and the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. Pretty soon, the notion of a life-and-death struggle for the imposition of one or the other version of the same religion began to seem absurd. Even to an 18th century observer like Voltaire, the European humanity of the 17th century appeared not only barbaric but certifiably insane. Apart from a few refractory places like Ireland, the great division between Catholicism and Protestantism vanished as a serious issue—in the political realm, at least—without the victory of one over the other.
As it slowly passed, however, a new, secular species of political division emerged. The French Revolution gave birth to the modern West and at the same time to its ur-conflict: Left versus Right. It did so by virtue of the utterly contingent fact that the factions which sat in the left and right-wings of the chamber in the French National Assembly took to calling themselves “the Left” and “the Right.” Ever since, people in the West have learned to define themselves, moderately or emphatically, by which of the two camps they fall into. In the United Kingdom, for instance, it is common for people to say things like, “I’ll never vote [for one or the other of the main parties],” simply because of the perception that one is the voice of the Left and the other of the Right. The division is not of great consequence in times of political stability, when sanity generally prevails over ideology. However, in troubled times, when economic instability or global conflicts begin to press on our day-to-day lives, the emotional appeal of the two camps increases.
During such periods, people of the emphatic frame of mind seek answers from their idols on the Left or the Right—Vladimir Lenin or Benito Mussolini; former Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn or former President Donald Trump (tragedy really does repeat itself as farce). The more moderate sort of Leftist or Rightist then begins to question whether they really have a political home, and are too tortured by the idea of what they have lost to realize that they never needed one. This happened after the September 11th attacks when the emphatic Leftists gravitated toward anti-Western groups like A.N.S.W.E.R. and the Stop the War Coalition. More sensible people, who continued to identify with the Left but did not wish to be associated with that Left wrote books about their disillusionment with titles like What’s Left? (Nick Cohen) or The Fallout (Andrew Anthony). Or, otherwise, they drafted manifestos, like the Euston Manifesto of the British Marxist and long-time contributor to the New Left Review, Norman Geras, to clarify that their Left was the “anti-totalitarian Left.” Others of the liberal-Left persuasion, such as the American public intellectual Sam Harris, took to using the term “the regressive Left,” so as to distinguish their mild, Democrat-voting version of Leftism from that advanced by what has increasingly come to be known as the “Woke Left.” The same thing happened on the “Right” when then-candidate Trump rose in the Republican Party and saner politicians who thought of themselves as paragons of an old-fashioned Right, like former Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain, joined conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan in the political wilderness, while chancers such as Steve Bannon set about re-defining what was meant by “right-wing.” Lately, in light of the pogrom-supporting faction of the Left which has been making a vulgar exhibition of itself since October 7th, a younger generation of moderate and Jewish “Leftists” are questioning where they belong. Indeed, the struggle for the soul of the American Left can be traced back to Sidney Hook’s polemics against the Soviet sympathizing Left in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, the “Right,” too, was going through a similar tribulation. Was it best represented by its presidential candidate, General Eisenhower, or the inebriated demagogue Joseph McCarthy—the Trump of his time—for whom Eisenhower was nothing but a closet communist?
The above only begins to touch on the difficulties any historian of the Left or the Right must encounter if they aim to discover the real meaning of these factions. Is the political Right, for instance, best represented by the reactionary conservatives like Edmund Burke and François-René de Chateaubriand, who insisted on turning back or arresting the changes pulling the world away from the old feudal order and toward the acquisitive and capitalistic society that developed in the 19th century? Or is it to be represented by the economic liberals of that age, who believed that the world would be liberated by free trade and free markets? Certainly, today, free-market fanatics, or libertarians, are strongly associated with the political Right. Such has been the case since the emergence of the Austrian neo-liberal school of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. But in the age of the Corn Laws such tendencies were decried by those who thought of themselves as being on the Right as socially corrosive radicalism. It is true that Racialism, as developed by people like Houston Stewart Chamberlain and taken up by Adolf Hitler, is strongly associated with a political far-Right. Yet Nazism was neither conservative nor economically liberal; it was a revolutionary movement with an economic regime of autarky, barter, conscripted and billeted labor, workers’ passports and organized leisure time. Progressively, it resembled the “Leftist” Bolshevist one it so fervently claimed to be resisting.
How about Leftism? If anyone had a monopoly on that, it was surely the communists in the years between 1921 and 1943, when they had the Comintern as an instrument of world revolution. But it would be an impossible task for an historian to elucidate which parts of their see-sawing practice were actually Left-wing. As the first chronicler of the Communist International, Franz Borkenau, put it in 1938, the “evolution [of communism] is a process of going from one extreme to the other, in endless repetition.” Were the communists on the Left during the years of the European popular fronts, when they made common cause with socialists and liberals to “defend” what they were in the habit of derisively calling “bourgeois democracy” against fascism? Certainly, their liberal and socialist fellow travelers thought so. In Britain, three of them, the voice of the Labour Left, Harold Laski, the revolutionary socialist, John Strachey, and the liberal publisher, Victor Gollancz, founded the Left Book Club to raise consciousness for the communist-cum-socialist-cum-liberal-Left all over the land. When the communists deserted them, as was entirely predictable, they brought out a collection of essays, The Betrayal of the Left. In their minds, only a betrayal of shared leftist principles could explain the communists’ conduct. Indisputably, the communists had betrayed the causes of democracy and humanitarianism, but had they betrayed the Left? On the contrary, the communists were of the opinion that they had returned to a pure Left, liberated from uncomfortable tactical alliances with the reviled bourgeoisie. The frontal attack on the bourgeois West—even if it was being conducted in alliance with Nazism—was, for them, a reclamation of the true spirit of “Left extremism.”
Having erased this history from their own minds, many “moderate Leftists,” like the head of the Socialist International, Julius Braunthal, embraced “neutralism” during the Cold War. They were begrudgingly content to accept the Marshall Aid which helped to rebuild Western Europe. However, as Braunthal explained in a 1949 article in Foreign Policy, “The Rebirth of Social Democracy,” they remained essentially hostile to the United States because it was capitalist but sympathetic to Stalin’s Soviet Union because the latter embodied some obscure version of Leftist socialism known only to those who continued to believe in it. At the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950, Arthur Koestler offered a devastating critique of this mentality:
“European liberals and Social-Democrats refer to themselves as ‘the moderate Left,’ which, if words are to be taken seriously, must mean that they differ only in degree but not in kind from their neighbours of the ‘extreme Left.’ And the ‘extreme Left’ is still regarded as synonymous with the Communist Party, in spite of the fact that virtually every tenet in the Communist credo is diametrically opposed to the principles originally associated with the Left. In short, the term ‘Left’ has become a verbal fetish whose cult sidetracks attention from the real issues. It is at the same time a dangerous anachronism, for it implies a continuous spectrum between liberal progressives and the worshippers of tyranny and terror.”
There was an inexplicable “neigbourly feeling,” as Koestler called it, that those who identified with the “Left” often had for communists—the sense that, despite everything, they were “on the same side of the barricades.” In the current context, one cannot help but think of Corbyn congratulating Hamas for their efforts to bring about “long term peace and social justice” in the Middle East or Judith Butler’s infamous assertion that the same group is part of the “global Left.”
All of the above begs the question whether—except when attempting to give directions—the terms Left and Right have any concrete meaning. At least the Catholics and Protestants of the 17th century were clear about what being a Catholic or a Protestant implied. Is there anyone who can give a clear definition of Leftist or Rightist doctrine with which even half of those who consider themselves to be on the Left or the Right would agree? I am inclined to doubt it, which is why I am of the opinion that we should stop burdening ourselves with these labels. Would it not be better if we tried to take a disinterested attitude to political and economic questions, informed by the careful study of which policies have the best outcomes for our collective well-being?.
Oscar Clarke, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Bristol, is the author of an intellectual biography of Franz Borkenau and has written for Quillette and the Kyiv Post. He can be found on X @OscarClarke17