What defines “left” and “right”?

In response to the entry “Leading Holocaust denier admits Holocaust happened,” a reader (who is a well-known conservative writer) writes:

This may be a small semantic quibble but I’ve always argued with the use of “right wing” when applied to Nazis or today to neo-Nazis. Didn’t the Nazis worship the state and the fuhrer as the ultimate Big Brother. I’ve always thought of right wing as anti-big government and pro-individualism and liberty.

LA replies:

That’s an issue I’ve dealt with a fair amount. This old thread, with VFR’s only direct confrontation with open pro-Nazis, leads into an exchange between a commenter and me on his idea that Nazism is a form of liberalism. You could start reading at this comment. Also see: Clearing up once and for all the idea that Nazism is leftism; and the differences between traditionalism, liberalism, and leftism.

Reader replies:

You really engage in some blog battles! I’m using left and right to mean total government control on the far left to no government control on the far right.

LA replies:

Then how would you describe a traditional society with an established church, strict morality, racial homogeneity, and exclusion of ethnic others?

Reader replies:

For me it’s all whether that is imposed by a coercive government from above (I’ve always thought of that as left—Communism, Socialism, Nazism, et al.) or that’s a natural emanation from the people themselves. The American colonies were pretty much as you describe. When England tried to clamp down after the Period of Salutary Neglect, the rebellion occurred and the Constitution that resulted provided for a very limited government. Nonetheless, all of what you mention below was still in place. I think what we had in the new nation was great personal freedom and political liberty but most people, with the freedom to do as they liked, ran in the same direction. I’ve always felt that a highly homogenous society can easily tolerate eccentrics because the great majority of people are so much alike. Now that our society has become so diverse the government has grown tremendously to replace, I suppose, the natural cohesion that was there in a homogenous society. Moreover, I think that a limited government would only work with a relatively well-educated, literate, enlightened, and homogenous population. I think we’ve now become Rome and are going the same way.

LA replies:

Natural emanation from the people themselves?

You are using a kind of Jeffersonian romantic model that does not correspond to the actual reality of traditional societies.

Take medieval society, with its Platonic articulation of the society into the Church as the spiritual power, the state as the secular power, the feudal chiefs as the military liegemen of the king (who in turn is their feudal overlord), the serfs, the providers of food, with their obligations to their lord, and the lord with his obligations to his serfs, and also the urban guilds, and the economic laws aimed at maintaining stability and supplying for everyone’s needs.

This medieval society was not a “natural emanation of the people themselves,” but a highly differentiated and organized society, in which everyone functioned as it were according to his place in the organic whole, very much like Plato’s Republic.

Yet according to your definition of “right,” this society would not be “right,” because it’s not based on individual freedom. You might even call it “left,” because it places people within a collective whole.

Clearly, then, freedom is not an adequate, and maybe not even correct at all, definition of “right.”

What you are calling right, is what I call right-liberalism or classical liberalism.

What I call right is traditionalism. Not that I am calling for a literal return to the Middle ages, but the key defining thing of traditionalism is the recognition of a natural, social, and spiritual order by which we are formed; we don’t entirely create ourselves through our own will and choices, much of what we are, for example our sex, is not chosen by us, but comes from beyond us. Yet liberals today believe that people have the right to choose literally everything about themselves, even their sex. See the VFR entry on “San Francisco police,” with its photo of a celebration of transgender rights.

What’s shown in the horrifying photo in that article—a woman who has made herself into a man, and a man who has himself into a woman—is the ultimate end point of freedom. Yet freedom, according to you, is what defines “the right.” Pure individual freedom without the guidance of a transcendent, traditional order is a world of sexual freaks and open borders.

This shows how the analysis “right = freedom, left = collectivism,” breaks down and is not adequate to describe social reality.

Again, please read the article I linked before, which clarifies the definition of “right” (i.e. traditionalism), “right-liberal” (which is what you call right), and left.

Reader replies:

You’re probably right (I’m considering whether the pun is intended or not). You are very much a Chronicles Magazine traditionalist. I suppose I am the victim of some Jeffersonian romanticism or idealism. Limited government, political liberty, and individual freedom are my ideals but, I admit, all of that can result in bizarre excesses. My point was, though, that the strange and bizarre is naturally limited in a homogeneous society. In such a society there are social and religious controls or influence that results in the great majority of people exercising their individuality within certain accepted parameters. In the United States we’ve lost those social controls that gave us the Norman Rockwell America—when there were far fewer laws and a far smaller federal government—and now we have something of a freak show while at the same time there are a million new laws and a leviathan federal government. I’m off to read your article.

LA replies:

Ok, but then your Jeffersonian republic depends on prior factors apart from freedom per se, such as a ethnoculturally homogeneous population. You are thus assuming the existence of certain traditionalist/collective factors (i.e. ethnocultural homogeneity) in order for your regime of freedom to work.

And this is exactly the tragedy of America itself, which I’ve written about many times: America from the start depended on certain traditional/ethnocultural/religious factors to have its freedoms and institutions, but in the formal ideology of the system, contained in its founding documents, only the freedom and procedural aspect of the society was articulated, NOT the ethno-cultural-religious basis that made the society possible. As a result, over the years, the freedom/procedural aspects got stronger and stronger, while the trad factors got weaker and weaker. So part of my trad project is to say, we need to go back to the American founding and make right what was wrong in it, namely, we need to recognize, along with the universalist proclamations and the procedural guarantees of self-government and liberty, the substantive ethnocultural understructure of the society.

Reader replies:

Actually, I’ve said very much the same thing. The seeds of our own destruction were sown with the Constitution because the Framers took all the things you mention for granted. In other words, the Constitution was going to work just fine as long as the people were united by race, language, religion, and traditions. This also meant that a little salt and pepper—“diversity” in today’s parlance—was fine because of the common bonds of the great majority. Now that we are balkanizing things are getting interesting. My kind of republic will not work with a population that looks like that of a Third World liberty port.

- end of initial entry -

April 12

Alan Roebuck writes:

You correctly observe, “Clearly, then, freedom is not an adequate, and maybe not even correct at all, definition of “right.”

Why then is freedom generally considered the virtual sine qua non of conservatism? Ayn Rand once observed that both liberals and (non-Randian) conservatives believe in freedom within a certain sphere and control within another, each wanting to exert control within the sphere they regard as most important. So liberals want to control the economy and the intellectual atmosphere and conservatives want to control social behavior. Each group, then, also believes in freedom within the non-decisive sphere: For liberals, this is the sphere of personal morality; for conservatives, the sphere of economic activity and of the exchange of ideas.

The association of freedom with conservatism may also stem from its ancient meaning: freedom denoting the possession of sufficient virtue and means to live well under liberty, as opposed to servile people who are not fit to govern their own affairs. “Freedom” in this sense does not mean simply the possession of the right and ability to do whatever one wants, it means the possession of sufficient virtue to live well. And this virtue would require membership in a generally virtuous group, submission to proper authority, the arduous development of self-control, and so on. “Freedom” in this sense would indeed be a properly conservative concept.

That being said, we must recognize that for the vast majority of Westerners, “freedom” no longer means any of this, and is taken as simply absence of restraint. That being the case, it is counterproductive for conservatives to extol freedom without carefully defining what sense of the word is meant.

It also shows the inadequacy of simply calling for government to get off our backs. It would indeed be a major step forward if the government were to stop promoting leftist insanity, but if it were magically to cease doing so tomorrow the fact would remain that Westerners generally voluntarily embrace most of the liberal madness. To be sure, the government does pursue a few die-hard renegades, but most of its effort is administering a regime of which most people appear to approve. “Freedom” is not enough. We need the positive projection and promotion of virtue.

LA replies:

“That being the case, it is counterproductive for conservatives to extol freedom without carefully defining what sense of the word is meant.”

Absolutely. Nothing has been more destructive than the constant conservative evocation of “freedom” without a definition of freedom. Years ago I was attending a meeting of the Philadelphia Society and former Attorney General Edwin Meese was speaking about how wonderful freedom is. In the question period, I said to him, doesn’t this mean that all immigrants who want to come here should be allowed to come. He didn’t get my point. He apparently couldn’t take in the concept that undefined freedom means freedom for everything equally, and that freedom needs to be carefully defined.

It wasn’t always like this. It became this way during the Reagan era. The battle was against Soviet Communism and against statism, and the opposite of those things was freedom. So freedom became an unqualified good.

Gintas writes:

My first exposure to this notion of a political spectrum running from pure collectivism to pure individualism came from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited. He tended to the Libertarian view of things, so it’s natural that the most important feature to him—individual liberty, relative to any state—should be plopped down on his political scale on one side. He called that the Right. Then, he needs to orient the exact opposite, collectivism, places it on the Left, and that completes his personal political spectrum. Then, it’s easy to put Nazi Germany over there on the left side. For that matter, you can place every society over there somewhere. For that reason such a political spectrum is worthless, and probably kooky, too.

LA replies:

If you will consent to change “worthless” and “kooky” to “deeply flawed” and “woefully misleading,” I will agree with you 100 percent. EKL, who was both a European traditionalist and a liberal (in the old sense) in opposition to the statist and collectivist horrors of 20th century Europe, somehow failed to articulate the traditionalist aspect in his definition of “the right,” thus identifying “right” with freedom and “left” with collectivism. it’s an odd mistake he made, and it has persuaded all too many conservatives to believe that Nazism was a form of leftism, a notion that for many is nothing less than an idee fix, adding nothing useful to conservative understandings but serving as a constant distraction. Yes, Nazism had socialistic elements; but to call a movement based on the glorification of the German race over all other races and the glorification of war as man’s highest state primarily a leftist movement represents an absurdist flight from reality.

Gintas replies:

I started conflating K-L with Libertarianism, and it all went downhill. I’m fine with changing it to deeply flawed and woefully misleading. It’s a puzzle how K-L, who identified Marxism as a “clear but false” ideology (meaning simple but deeply flawed) could make such a mistake; his spectrum is likewise “clear but false.”

LA writes (continuing the exchange with the reader in the initial entry):

I think the reader’s thought is like Jefferson’s in some ways, and Jefferson also encapsulated the contradictions of the Founding that I’ve described (though the reader seems aware of the contradictions in a way Jefferson was not). Jefferson saw Americans as a distinct (and thus ethnic) people, inhabiting this particular land “to the thousandth and thousandth generation,” in a shared life of liberty under law. Yet he just assumed the existence and continuation of that peoplehood that was the basis of the vision of liberty under law; he did not see it as a crucial value to be defended as such.

This beautiful (yet interestingly flawed) evocation of America is from Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter, with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens, a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

Now here is an earlier section of the same speech, followed by a comment about it that I wrote in 2000 and just came upon in my computer files. My criticisms of Jefferson are highly relevant to my exchange with the reader:

I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? [Emphasis added.] Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

LA commented (December 2000):

[Brilliant—and specious. Jefferson lays out a vision in which popular self-government flows completely from the presumed perfect self-government of each individual. Since each man successfully governs himself, he can participate as an active citizen in the government of his fellow citizens, with everyone mutually enforcing the law. This is very good; but it is only half the truth. The true part is the notion of self-control and self-autonomy (of each man taking responsibility for the law), without which there can be no freedom, whether in a Christian or a Republican sense. The false part is that Jefferson is suggesting that man needs no higher order, that his own will is perfect. The reality of course is that man needs sources of order coming from outside himself in order to govern himself. Jefferson leaves out that crucial dimension of political and moral order. This is a grievous error or falsehood in which none of the more sound Founders would have indulged.]

[Note further that his starting point is an opinion he is rejecting—that Republican government cannot be sufficiently strong; he’s implying, I think, that those who entertain this doubt about Republicanism are those (his Federalist enemies) who supposedly aim at monarchy. He then launches into his assertion of the sufficient strength of Republican government, based on the idea that such government flows from each man’s perfect self-government! It’s brilliantly perverse. It has such an important, and distinctively American, truth, but combined with the most dangerous falsehood.]

What was the point in my December 2000 note? Jefferson believes in social order—which makes him sound like a traditionalist conservative. But he bases this social order solely on the faith that each individual person is naturally virtuous. It’s a wonderful ideal, and America has embodied it more than any society in history. But it’s not self-sustaining. The individual virtue depends on non-individual things—religion, inherited morality, a reasonably stable social order—that do not arise from the individual but are the product of transcendence and the inherited collective experience of a people, i.e., tradition. Without the protection and preservation and nourishing of that collective, traditional aspect of society, the individual virtue aspect would not exist. The failure to see this is Jefferson’s—and America’s—fatal failing.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 11, 2009 12:41 PM | Send

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