Since left and right are still the most salient political categories, it is of utmost importance to be clear about their meanings.
Political discourse in the United States consists largely of lies and confusions. One of the greatest of lies and confusions, which I hope to help dispel in this article, is the common delimitation of the very concepts “left” and “right:” It is claimed that to be on the right is to value freedom above all—this is what “small government” is supposed to mean, for example—while to be on the left is to value equality, if necessary an equality enforced tyrannically by an enormous, Soviet-style government.
Nothing could be farther from the truth than this conventional wisdom. The opposite is closer to reality: To be on the right means, in effect, to advocate an enforced equality of nearly universal servitude and anti-democracy, while to be on the left means to value the greatest freedom for the greatest number. Since left and right are still the most salient political categories (notwithstanding the fantasies of some commentators that they’re obsolete concepts), it is of utmost importance to be clear about their meanings.
Underlying this debate about definitions and political commitments is an important strategic point: The left has to reclaim the language of freedom from the faux-libertarian right. We shouldn’t let conservatives get away with pretending they’re the ones who value free speech, for example. The only reason freedom of expression is (to some degree) protected today is because of centuries of left-wing activism.
You weren’t free if you had to work long hours in poor conditions for low wages, subject to the capricious tyranny of an employer because it was absolutely forbidden to form a union.
A couple of approaches to this subject are possible. One might expound the history of left and right, from the 17th century to the present, using it to illustrate the underlying values of the “radical” and the “conservative” traditions (with a congeries of milquetoast “centrists” always somewhere in between). Alternatively, one might analyze contemporary ideologies and policy positions, showing what their implications for freedom and human flourishing are. Both of these approaches would yield the same result: The left’s is a philosophy of emancipation and not mere insipid “equality”—unless it’s an equality of emancipation (freedom); the right’s is a philosophy of, to quote Corey Robin, defending hierarchy, or more specifically, of “having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” The right’s is an authoritarian, not a libertarian, philosophy. There have, admittedly, been people and governments who have called themselves leftist—or socialist, democratic, or communist—who have been profoundly authoritarian, but they have always been attacked by more principled leftists, often anarchists or left-Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, for their betrayal of libertarian values and having been corrupted by a love of power.
It was during the Cold War that the present political confusions became embedded in American culture. Before the 1940s, defenders of laissez-faire capitalism, from Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner to anti-New Dealers like Herbert Hoover, had indeed insisted they were the true upholders of freedom, but labor organizers and socialists from Samuel Gompers to Eugene Debs had compellingly countered these claims.
Franklin Roosevelt was revered for identifying freedom with economic security: “I am not for a return to that definition of liberty,” he said in one of his fireside chats, “under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man…” This inclusion of security in the definition of freedom was common sense to most Americans: You weren’t free if you had to work long hours in poor conditions for low wages, subject to the capricious tyranny of an employer because it was absolutely forbidden to form a union, i.e., to cooperate with your coworkers for mutual uplift. Most people in the 1930s took it for granted that the “freedom” of conservatives was the freedom of the ruling class to dominate, exploit, and immiserate the majority.
By the late 1940s and 1950s, during and after the Second Red Scare, big business had successfully counterattacked and “sold free enterprise” to Americans as the epitome of freedom itself. This was an easier sell than it would have been had the Soviet Union not been there to tarnish the idea of socialism (or communism), which used to mean nothing but an extension of democracy into the economic sphere: ordinary people freely controlling their own work, in the form of worker cooperatives and democratic government coordination of large industry. Americans were now persuaded to believe something ridiculous: Whatever a government calls itself, it is in fact that thing. If, like the USSR, it calls itself socialist, communist, or left-wing, we have to take its word for it, because governments are always honest and trustworthy. (But then why didn’t we take the Soviets’ word for it when they called themselves a democracy, and thus conclude that the USSR had invalidated democracy just as it had supposedly invalidated socialism or communism? Could it be that we were simply victims of the West’s propaganda to defame an old anti-capitalist tradition?)
The history of the left was now forgotten, as, perversely, to be on the left ostensibly meant to be a totalitarian, a “collectivist,” who was willing to sacrifice freedom for the gray equality of a universal government bureaucracy. It was forgotten that the revolutionary left had always been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom. The words of the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (note the alteration of John Locke’s original “life, liberty, and property”)—written in the context of mass struggle against illegitimate power, belonged to the tradition of the left. The abolitionist movement to emancipate the slaves was denounced for its radicalism by conservatives and centrists of the day. In the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World courageously tested the limits of American democracy in their famous free speech fights. In the 1930s, the Communist Party helped organize the early stages of a long civil rights movement against lynching, the Jim Crow regime, and economic exploitation of Blacks in the South. The New Left of the 1960s expanded the realm of freedom further in its battles, anticipated in the Port Huron Statement, against the stultifyingly conformist, bureaucratic, right-wing Cold War establishment. And the counterculture, which conservatives so hated that it helped birth the New Right, had freedom as its watchword: free love, free access to drugs, free celebration of life and music and community.
In the meantime, conservatism was marshaling its forces for an all-out 50-year assault against the emancipatory legacy of the New Deal and the New Left. Characteristically, it disguised its real intentions in the language of liberty: Its economic philosophy it called libertarianism, although what it meant in practice was nothing but the tyranny of big business unconstrained by unions, government regulation, or the welfare state. This dystopian “free market” vision of the Mont Pelerin Society, significantly, was attractive to Southern white supremacists, who voted for Barry Goldwater, an early right-wing “libertarian,” in 1964 despite his being a Republican.
In desiring a weakened—in some respects—federal government, what both types of conservatives really want is unfettered power over a subordinate group, whether non-whites or workers.
Why this affinity between white supremacists and business supremacists? (One sees it today too, as white supremacists have notoriously supported Donald Trump, a business supremacist.) Because both groups worship power and hierarchy. In desiring a weakened—in some respects—federal government, what both types of conservatives really want is unfettered power over a subordinate group, whether non-whites or workers. With a smaller, weakened government, they can more easily wield this power unhindered by irksome federal laws and regulations that protect workers, minorities, public resources, and the natural environment.
In other words, however appealing the “small government” slogan might seem, or however grounded in classical liberalism, it is motivated today by values opposite to those of classical liberals like Wilhelm von Humboldt and Immanuel Kant. Humboldt argued that a human being “is born to inquire and create, and when a man or a child chooses to inquire or create out of his own free choice then he becomes in his own terms an artist rather than a tool of production or a well-trained parrot.” For Kant, “there is only one innate right: freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law.” In a time before the colossal modern corporation, before the vast complexity of industrial capitalist society, it made perfect sense to arrive from these premises at the conclusion that the state ought to be very small.
But circumstances change. How far the libertarian, anarchistic sensibility of Humboldt and Kant is from modern conservatism is clear from, say, the famous Powell Memorandum of 1971, which plotted the counterattack of the New Right against the New Left. To restore the ideological and cultural hegemony of big business over American society, Lewis Powell advocated, for example, a “Big Brother”-style monitoring of all media and educational institutions—not by the state, it’s true, but by the Chamber of Commerce. “The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs…but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system [i.e., capitalism]... [T]he result is the gradual erosion of confidence in ‘business’ and free enterprise.” It is necessary, then, to control what the public is allowed to see, hear, and read, so that confidence in capitalism is not eroded.
This waging of political war on behalf of the rich and powerful, so as to eliminate dissent against the system that has given them their power, is antithetical to classical liberalism. It has nothing in common with the desire for universal freedom.
Consistent leftists certainly have no love of “big government:” Just read the writings of anarchists in the last 180 years, from Bakunin through Alexander Berkman to David Graeber. (These are the real successors to classical liberalism.) Even Marxists are well aware that the state tends to crush individual freedom, which is why they look forward to a withering away of the state. They understand, however, that a social democratic government that guarantees people the right to healthcare, free education, expansive public resources, and a decent standard of living is at least preferable to a Milton Friedmanite laissez-faire capitalism that leaves people no recourse against total domination by super-concentrations of economic power (and the government they control).
The distinction is sometimes made between negative freedom and positive freedom: “Negatively, liberty is the absence of restraint; positively, it is the power to act and to enjoy,” to quote the liberal priest John Ryan (in his 1912 book A Living Wage). And it is claimed that conservatives value negative freedom while leftists value positive freedom. This, too, is false. For one thing, social conservatives are very comfortable restraining the liberty of others. Whatever one may think of abortion, same-sex marriage, and other social issues, it is evident that to legislate against them is to restrict the freedoms of women, gays, and other targeted groups. But economic conservatism, too, amounts to limiting people’s freedom, including their negative freedom. If strong labor laws, for instance, do not exist or are not enforced, employers can easily prevent workers from unionizing, which is an obvious infringement on their freedom. More generally, having to obey all the orders of a boss lest you be fired and left to the tender mercies of unemployment and (in many cases) a brutal job market is a clear “restraint” on your liberty. The philosophy of conservatism, therefore, is a philosophy of authoritarianism, precisely the opposite of what its exponents usually say.
In fairness, conservatives are often more honest when talking to each other. They can be quite open about their hatred of democracy (i.e., the freedom of everyone to participate in politics). In his presidential address in 1978 to the Mont Pelerin Society, for example, economist George Stigler suggested that victory in their privatization crusade might be achieved by “the restriction of the franchise to property owners, educated classes, employed persons or some such group.” As Nancy MacLean documents in Democracy in Chains, Stigler’s colleague James Buchanan, along with Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and other “libertarian” authoritarians (who infamously supported Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet), were likewise very hostile to democracy, as conservatives have typically been. (It’s hardly a surprise that the Republican Party is currently trying to make it harder for certain groups of people, such as college students, to vote.) But this is perfectly natural if their ideology, as I’m arguing, is in its essence opposed to the freedom of everyone except the economic and political elite.
None of this is to say that all leftists are consistent, however. Woke cancel culture, which has been criticized by both leftists and conservatives, tends to restrict people’s freedom of expression, by implanting the fear in them that if they say something slightly outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable at that moment, they’ll suffer grievous consequences. If cancel culture could go as far as many of its practitioners would like it to go, very little dissent on matters of social significance would exist or be tolerated. A timidity and frigidity of thought would descend like a pall under a regime of soft totalitarianism. Cancel culture is hardly a new thing in history—conservatives and centrists have always practiced it to silence dissent, whether by excluding leftists from the dominant media, destroying their careers, imprisoning them, or killing them—but it is unseemly for leftists to participate in it.
In the end, the values of the left are those of the Enlightenment (in reaction against which conservatism was originally founded). “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” said Kant. “‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of the Enlightenment.” Voltaire’s loathing of censorship, Rousseau’s love of freedom, Kant’s emphasis on the critical use of reason, Adam Smith’s moral philosophy of sympathy, Spinoza’s faith in democracy, Humboldt’s exaltation of individual creativity, Benjamin Rush’s philosophy of universal education, Condorcet’s belief in progress—these are the pillars of the left, the emancipatory tradition in politics. The “equality” that is valued is the equality of human rights, the equality of freedom, which presupposes a relative equality of economic security. Against the conservative love of unaccountable power and imposed inequality, the left believes in the universality of human dignity.