This book addresses a conflict that for two hundred years has dominated the political history of the West. It is a conflict that drives America’s “culture wars” in the present and that provided the motive force behind the Cold War now past. But it is still referred to in terms that have their origins in the French Revolution, when radicals sat to the left in the National Assembly and their opponents to the right. Many will argue that we have moved beyond these political categories; several books and dozens of articles have appeared bearing the title “Beyond Left and Right,” which seek to establish as much. It is widely accepted in the popular culture that we have entered a “post-ideological” age; in the political spectrum, for reasons I will examine, the Left itself has become all but invisible.
The argument of this book, however, is that these epitaphs for the conflict that has dominated our epoch are premature: The terms “Left” and “Right” define political forces that have not only shaped modernity but continue to shape the post-Cold War, “postmodern” world. In particular, as I will show in chapter 6, “A Radical Holocaust,” the ideas of the Left have dominated the handling of the AIDS epidemic, resulting in the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of young gay males.
It was during the French Revolution that the Left created the socialist and communist movements, whose agendas were to “complete” the transformation the revolution had begun. The efforts of these radicals culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, whose leaders saw themselves as the direct heirs of Robespierre and the Jacobins, and whose goal was an egalitarian state. But now the empires that socialists built have crashed ingloriously to earth. The catastrophe of the Soviet system has ended for all but the most obdurate the idea that a social plan can replace the market and produce abundance, or that government can abolish private property without also abolishing political freedom.
One might conclude from these facts that the Left is now no more than a historical curiosity, and the intellectual tradition that sustained it for two hundred years is at an end. But if history were a rational process, mankind would have learned these lessons long ago, and rejected the socialist fallacies that have caused such epic grief.
It could also be argued that there has never been a true Right in America, a party committed to monarchy, with religious attachments to “blood and soil.” Indeed, as a frontier nation, America has been so future-oriented that, until recently, an American conservatism seemed a contradiction in terms. The contemporary conservative movement emerged only in the 1950s, launching its first presidential bid with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Yet, barely twenty-five years later, the end of Communism had already put the future of this movement in question. Many argued that American conservatism was so much a coalition of convenience—the marriage of disparate philosophies united only by anti-Communist passion—that it would not outlive its ideological adversary.
But the Right has survived its triumphs, even as the Left has outlived its defeats. A few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a leader of intellectual conservatism observed: “There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.” What Irving Kristol refers to in this passage as the “liberal ethos” is really not liberal, but the radical enterprise that now dresses itself up in “liberal” colors. Group collectivism, racial preferences, “substantive equality” and moral relativism—these are the rallying themes of contemporary liberals. But they have little in common with the liberalism of the pre-Sixties era, or with its classical antecedents. In fact, they make up a radical creed.
Even so, many will contend that today no significant Left exists in America, outside the liberal arts faculties of universities or among the leadership of government unions. They will further claim that the “liberal ethos,” to which Kristol refers, is indeed liberal in its agendas, that it aims at no more than a tempering of free-market individualism with social concerns. In this view, the domestic “cold war” is a political chimera, created by the Right to keep its (anti-Communist) faith alive.
It is the argument of this book that such conclusions are misguided. They confuse a momentary equilibrium in the political balance with the deeper forces that shape an epoch. It is true that the Left is rhetorically in retreat and for the moment has adopted more moderate self-descriptions. But that is hardly the same as surrendering its agendas or vacating the field of battle. It is more like adopting a political camouflage on entering a hostile terrain. In the era when Stalin was conquering Eastern Europe, American Communists were calling themselves “progressives” to avoid the taint that Stalinism had inflicted on them. But this was only a protective coloration. It did not involve the slightest change in their real commitments as Marxist radicals, or in their ultimate goals of overthrowing the American government and subverting its Constitution. Far from signaling the end of an anti-American radicalism, as the movements of the Sixties showed, this metamorphosis of Communists into progressives was just the beginning.
It is also true that many liberals, despite sharing a common political front with the Left, are not committed to radical agendas. They are pragmatic enough to tack in a conservative direction should the political wind shift. But by the same token, they are not anchored to any conservative principles that would hold them on course when the same wind shifts again.
Those who question the existence of a Left are influenced, in large part, by an optical illusion created by a culture that is instinctively protective of the Left and that reflects the long-standing dominion of socialist sentiments. In the present post-Communist moment, radicalism is so tainted by its complicity in recent crimes that merely to identify someone as a partisan of the Left would be a damaging accusation. Political bystanders, who may be vaguely sympathetic to leftist ideas or even neutral in the historical debate, will recoil instinctively from the left-wing label as from the stigma of an inquisition. No one wants to be perceived as a “McCarthyist.” As a result, even self-avowed Communists like Angela Davis are regularly identified as “liberals” by the media, unless they themselves choose otherwise. The very idiom “to red-bait” shows how ingrained this universal reflex is. There is no comparable term to describe the hostile exposure of loyalties on the Right.
The same protective impulse is manifest in the standards used in public opinion surveys, which are calibrated on scales that range from “liberal” to “conservative” and “ultraconservative,” but lack the balance of a “Left.” Was the Clinton Administration’s attempt to nationalize one-sixth of the economy inspired by socialist illusions? The question may or may not have an affirmative answer. But in the contemporary American culture it is ill-mannered to ask.
A recent report by Americans for Democratic Action shows that forty-seven Democratic House members in the 104th Congress voted to the left of Representative Bernie Sanders, who (alone among them) describes himself as a socialist. An even greater number of politicians who identify themselves as liberal, despite the demise of the socialist bloc, seem to think it unjust that some people earn more than others, a presumption that is the core of leftist belief.
As a result of the prevailing cultural gravity, media arbiters regularly misapply political labels to both sides of the spectrum. Noam Chomsky, the America-loathing MIT socialist, is routinely described in the press as a “liberal,” while a political adversary like sociologist Charles Murray, who is a libertarian, is normally referred to as “conservative.” In the current cultural lexicon, a liberal is thus no longer one who ascribes to the principles of Madison or Locke, or to the institutions of private property and free markets, but to almost anyone who is not labeled a “conservative.”
In Europe, by contrast, parties described as “liberal” still reflect the classical origins of the term itself and are associated with economic individualism and free markets. One reason is that in Europe there is a standing socialist tradition that goes back more than a hundred years. It would be inconvenient for radical parties with long socialist histories to suddenly adopt the term “liberal” in order to make a cosmetic adjustment to post-Communist reality. In the United States, however, where the entrance of radicals into the political mainstream has been as recent as the 1970s, such a cosmetic remake is effortless.
For some radicals the term “liberal” is still so distasteful that only the alternatives “progressive” and “populist” are acceptable masks for their chosen agendas. In 1995, The Nation magazine printed a manifesto titled “Real Populists Please Stand Up,” which read in part:
We are ruled by Big Business and Big Government as its paid hirelings, and we know it. . . . The big corporations and the centimillionaires and billionaires have taken daily control of our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our pension funds, our bank and savings deposits, our public lands, our airwaves, our elections and our very government. . . . The divine right of kings has been replaced by the divine right of CEOs.
This “populist” vision of America and its ruling class does not differ in any particular from those featured in the Stalinist tracts published in the 1930s, when The Nation was a promoter of the Soviet dictatorship and a proud participant in its “Popular Front.”
The changes in labeling that have blurred distinctions on the political landscape and obscured the existence of a Left can be traced to the end of the Sixties and the failure of its radical apocalypse. Twenty years earlier, radicals marched out of the Democratic Party to protest its anti-Communist foreign policy and formed the Progressive Party to advance their pro-Soviet agendas behind the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace. Once having stepped outside the Democratic fold, they shed their liberal masks and, in the Sixties, emerged as New Left radicals condemning both parties as shills for the corporate “ruling class.” It was not until the 1972 presidential campaign of former Progressive Party activist George McGovern that the Left returned to its Democratic base.
In making the transition back to the Democratic ranks, radical activists sought to create a fire wall between themselves and their recent careers as political revolutionaries. Without abandoning their old agendas, they sought to escape the taint their leftism had acquired through its resort to violence and its easy embrace of totalitarian causes. They accomplished this, as they had during the Popular Front of the 1930s, by modifying their rhetoric and enveloping themselves in the less threatening mantles of “liberal,” “progressive” and “populist.”
To acquire even more protective coloration from the political center, socialist radicals coined the term “neoconservative” to describe those adversaries who were genuine liberals opposed to an alliance with the Left. Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and other neoconservative spokesmen have written at length of their efforts to retain the term “liberal” for themselves and preserve the integrity of the political language. But, despite the indisputable logic of their position, they were unable to withstand the dominant influence of the Left in the culture, and the “neoconservative” label stuck.
An ironic result of the Left’s success in transforming the lexicon of American politics was that university speech codes and other forms of censorship, in the 1980s, were imposed by people the press identified as “liberals.” The authors of these codes were actually the radicals who had entered the academy following the failure of their revolutionary projects in the 1960s. Nor were their opponents, who rejected the idea of “political correctness,” really the conservative actors in these campus dramas. By the 1980s, the status quo order at American universities was almost everywhere controlled by the Left. The determined reformers of the censoring regimes were their political opponents on the Right.
A key architect of academic speech codes was radical law professor Catharine MacKinnon, whose theoretical presumptions were laid out in a crude Marxist text, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, and amplified in a tract equating pornography with rape, published by Harvard University Press. In her defense of censorship, Professor MacKinnon revealed how campus commissars were self-consciously carrying on a radical tradition that went back to Marx. “The law of equality and the law of freedom of speech are on a collision course in this country,” she announced, expressing the traditional radical disdain for individual rights (free speech) as against group rights (equality). Before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, she continued, “the Constitution contained no equality guarantee.” As a result, “the constitutional doctrine of free speech has developed without taking equality seriously—either the problem of social inequality or the mandate of substantive legal equality. . . [entrenched] in the Fourteenth Amendment.” According to MacKinnon, the task of legal radicals like herself was to make sure that “substantive” equality was enacted into law, and to embed the principle of equal outcomes in the American constitutional framework.
But neither the doctrine of social equality nor MacKinnon’s imaginary “mandate of substantive legal equality” is, in fact, compatible with Madisonian liberalism or with the written Constitution or with the principle of liberty as understood by the American Founders. On the contrary, the “law” of freedom and the “law” of equality were understood by the Framers to be fundamentally in conflict with each other—a conflict that the socialist experiments of the last century have demonstrated with such tragic effect. Whenever a state seeks to enforce “substantive equality” in society, the principles of free speech, private property, and individual freedom inevitably raise insurmountable obstacles to the totalitarian project and are invariably suppressed.
The crypto-Marxist doctrine of “substantive equality,” however, is now not limited to radical feminists posturing as liberal academics. What might be called “Fourteenth Amendment Marxism” is a powerful and growing school of jurisprudence on American law faculties, and has profoundly influenced the direction of liberal legal theory in general. In The Irony of Free Speech, Owen Fiss, a prominent legal scholar at Yale, advocates the soft version of the MacKinnon doctrine and identifies it with “liberal” jurisprudence as such:
“Whereas the liberalism of the Nineteenth Century was defined by the claims of individual liberty and resulted in an unequivocal demand for limited government, the liberalism of today embraces the value of equality as well as liberty.” And further: “Today, equality has another place altogether [than it had previously in the American constitutional framework]—it is one of the center beams of the legal order. It is architectonic.” By this, Fiss means that “a truly democratic politics will not be achieved until conditions of equality have been fully satisfied.” This is the classic Marxist view—the Rights of Man will only be realized in a socialist state. In a typical academic muddle, Fiss proposes to combine the contradictory values, political liberty and equality of condition, ignoring the Founders’ explicit recognition of their irresolvable conflict.
More ominous for America’s constitutional future is that the doctrine of Fourteenth Amendment Marxism has become the basic charter of the so-called civil rights movement. The presence of the radical agenda in the American mainstream is nowhere more clearly seen than in the battle over the system of racial preferences called “affirmative action.” No other issue goes so directly to the heart of America’s social contract, to the survival of its pluralist enterprise, or to the shape of its political future.
In November 1997, voters in the largest state in the union overwhelmingly passed the California Civil Rights Initiative, outlawing government preferences and discrimination by race and gender. Known as Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative was designed to conform to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial segregation. The words of the initiative are straightforward and simple:
The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
The opposition to this measure was led by the organizations traditionally identified with civil rights that had become radicalized in the preceding decades. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and other opponents of the California Civil Rights Initiative formed a roster of organizations that virtually defined the word “liberalism.” When the initiative passed by a 54 percent to 45 percent margin, this liberal coalition appealed to a federal judge for an injunction that would stop its implementation. The initiative, they maintained, was “unconstitutional.” The chief litigator for the ACLU called it “the most radical restructuring of the political process to the detriment of minorities in the history of this country”—an indication of just how deep was the division over an understanding of the most basic principle of American pluralism.
In their opposition to the California Civil Rights Initiative, the ACLU-NAACP plaintiffs invoked the Fourteenth Amendment. Drawing on the radical law theories of the academic Left, they argued that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the amendment. If the courts let the initiative stand, they maintained, it would “impose a special burden on minorities.” After hearing the argument, Judge Thelton Henderson granted the injunction. Henderson had been specifically sought out by the plaintiffs to hear the case because he himself was a former left-wing activist and board member of the ACLU. In the ACLU-NAACP complaint, and in Henderson’s decision, the radical outlook of the new liberalism could not have been more clearly or more paradoxically expressed: a law banning racial preferences was held to violate the Equal Protection Clause, and was therefore regarded as unconstitutional.
The conservative backers of the California Civil Rights Initiative were also veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement, and they appealed Henderson’s opinion to the Ninth Circuit Court, where a three-member panel reversed his ruling and lifted the injunction. In reinstating the initiative, the Ninth Circuit found the position of its opponents not only wrong, but incoherent. One could not invoke equal protection of the laws to oppose a law banning racial preferences unless one was in profound disagreement with the constitutional framework itself:
Proposition 209 amends the California Constitution simply to prohibit state discrimination against or preferential treatment to any person on account of race or gender. Plaintiffs charge that this ban on unequal treatment denies members of certain races and one gender equal protection of the laws. If merely stating this alleged equal protection violation does not suffice to refute it, the central tenet of the Equal Protection Clause teeters on the brink of incoherence.
Not daunted even by this harsh judgment, opponents of the California Civil Rights Initiative announced they would appeal the decision and dig in for a long war. In their appeal, they were joined by the U.S. Department of Justice and the president of the United States. The determination to press the disagreement as a matter of constitutional principle emphasized the radical break that had occurred in the American social contract. A principle that had once been a common foundation for nationhood—equal treatment by the law—had become a ground of fundamental conflict.
The dispute also reflected the distorted terms of political discourse. A law against racial preferences, drafted to conform to the historic civil rights measures of the 1960s, was now “conservative;” opposition to an antidiscrimination law was now “liberal.”
The heart of the dispute between liberals and conservatives lay in their opposing views of the Fourteenth Amendment. Did the Equal Protection Clause require government to make its citizens substantively equal (the view of the Left), or did it require government to treat its citizens as equals before rhe law (the view of the Right). This dispute, of course, engages the entire 150-year history of conflict between Marxist movements, disdainful of “bourgeois rights,” and the capitalist democracies of the West. Except that now, the Marxist position is argued by “liberals.”
In the debate over the Civil Rights Initiative, the “liberal” side had invoked the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment as the grounds for striking down the antidiscrimination statute. The Ninth Circuit called this argument “paradoxical,” as surely it was. The Fourteenth Amendment had been adopted as a protection for Negroes in the postslavery South who were being stripped by government of their individual civil rights under the infamous “Black Codes.” The Fourteenth Amendment was most emphatically not designed, as Catharine MacKinnon and the ACLU-NAACP radicals maintained, to guarantee equality for groups, whether through government-sponsored affirmative action policies or government programs to redistribute wealth. The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government from discriminating against individuals, especially on the basis of race. To underscore this point, the Ninth Circuit, citing a previous Supreme Court decision, observed:
After all, the “goal” of the Fourteenth Amendment, “to which the Nation continues to aspire,” is “a political system in which race no longer matters.”
Of course, not everyone opposing the California Civil Rights Initiative was radical in their perspective. Nor is every supporter of affirmative action inspired by the idea of group fights based on race, gender or class. But the principle of group rights is integral to every claim for affirmative action preferences, and is antithetic to the most fundamental principles of the American founding. It is the very constitutional idea of “social justice” between groups, which has always been at the heart of the radical project, that now drives much of the political agenda currently described as “liberal.” It is this idea that lies behind the attack on America’s constitutional framework mounted by “multiculturalists,” “critical legal theorists,” “critical race advocates,” and activist judges who refer to the authority of a “living constitution” unanchored in any written text. The combination of these forces and their pervasive influence in the institutions of American culture and politics, backed by the American presidency, makes the current radical assault on the American founding both formidable and disturbing.
In establishing the proper terms with which to describe this conflict, there remains one final introductory issue, namely, whether the bipolar distinctions “Left” and “Right” still usefully describe the actors themselves. Does this dichotomy accommodate the complexity of views on both sides of the political spectrum? Does the term “Left” really embrace both radicals and liberals, and are libertarians properly associated with the Right?
The answers to these questions are, inevitably, both yes and no. While the terms may not be entirely satisfactory in describing complex individual commitments, they are nonetheless indispensable. Left and Right represent distinct and conflicting attitudes toward property, liberty and social equality, which are the axes of contemporary political battles and define their historical possibilities.
On the Right, it is true, the conflicts between libertarians and conservatives remain in many areas fundamental—for example, in those cases where conservatives look to the state to defend the institutions of moral order. But the two parties share a common belief in property as the foundation of human liberty, and a common understanding of the inherent conflict between liberty and equality. These inevitably join them in opposition to the Left.
On the Left, the conflicts between radicals and liberals are less fundamental, concerning means rather than ends. Radicals and liberals share a structure of belief that creates a permanent alliance between them. In Destructive Generation, Peter Collier and I attempted to summarize the nature of this alliance in the following formulation: “If the bloodstained reality of the Left is indefensible within the framework provided by liberal principle, its ideals nonetheless seem [to liberals] beyond challenge.” We referred to the passage in Lionel Trilling’s classic novel The Middle of the Journey, where the author makes the same observation:
Certain things were clear between Laskell and Maxim [Trilling’s representative liberal and radical]. It was established that Laskell accepted Maxim’s extreme commitment to the future. It was understood between them that Laskell did not accept all of Maxim’s ideas. At the same time, Laskell did not oppose Maxim’s ideas. One could not oppose them without being illiberal, even reactionary. One would have to have something better to offer and Laskell had nothing better. He could not even imagine what the better ideas would be.
Trilling was referring to ideas like “equality” and “social justice,” which define the aspirations of the Left and set their parameters. While not actually supporting Communism, liberals like Laskell were convinced that “one was morally compromised, turned toward evil and away from good, if one was against it.” In the conviction that radical goals are noble, however problematic the radical means, lie the seeds of liberalism’s historic alliance with—and protection of—the antiliberal Left.
The continuing resonance of this protective attitude can be seen in the loyalties inspired by the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers trial in midcentury, an episode that divided the political culture during the early Cold War. The Roosevelt Administration—the fount of modern American liberalism—had protected Alger Hiss and—wittingly or unwittingly—made it possible for him to function as a Soviet agent and spy. Even after Hiss was proven a traitor, the liberal culture continued to view him as a victim, never the villain of the piece. This attitude of forbearance was extended to the traitor Hiss until the end of his life, after the fall of the Soviet empire, when he was eulogized by liberals—including news anchors for the major networks—as a man who suffered at the hands of dark forces, while gamely maintaining his innocence to the end. His antagonist, on the other hand, the disparaged and long-forgotten Chambers (Trilling’s model for the character of Gifford Maxim) was never embraced by liberals as the patriot he was, nor viewed as the hero his service merited. This remained so even after his ideas and actions were vindicated by the fall of Communism and the universal acknowledgment of its terrible crimes.
The alliance between liberals and radicals is reflected throughout a culture that in its deep structures supports the worldview of the Left. This influence is so profound as to have entered the language itself and thus become a habit of mind that is no longer noticed. We speak reflexively of leftists as “progressives,” even though their doctrines are rooted in Nineteenth-Century prejudice and have been refuted by a historical record of unprecedented bloodshed and oppression.
In similar fashion, we casually speak of the “haves” and the “have-nots,” terms that presume the “social injustice” the Left proposes to redress, while at the same time inflaming the passions of social resentment. Yet, as Friedrich Hayek and others have long pointed out, there is no social entity that divides up society’s wealth or can be said to distribute it unjustly. The very term “social justice” describes a prejudice and incitement of the Left, but only this. In a society of liberal politics and economic markets, it would be more appropriate to speak of the “dos” and the “do nots,” the “cans” and the “cannots,” the “wills” and the “will nots”—terms that reflect the undeniable fact of American social mobility—that individuals can and do make their own destinies, even in circumstances they may not control. Yet, no matter how conservative we may be, we could hardly use these accurate descriptive terms without being simultaneously assaulted by the suspicion that the very usage reflects a mean-spirited attitude on our part which “blames the victim.” Such is the power of the political language. To recognize linguistic gravities like these is another way of recognizing the cultural hegemony of the Left.
It is a hegemony with far-ranging social consequences, some of which will be explored in the observations that follow. But our first task is to understand the nature of the radical project, and why it cannot succeed, and thus the reasons that its challenge to democratic order is so dangerous and destructive.
The essays in this book explore the trajectory of the radical idea from its origins in the socialist Left to its present incarnation as a movement that calls itself “liberal” and “progressive,” but whose ideological agendas are radical and totalitarian. They also necessarily address the interjection of religious ideas into the political arena, a concern normally directed to the “religious Right.” Observers as disparate as Berdyaev, Niebuhr, Voegelin, Kolakowski and Talmon long ago, however, recognized and explored the religious dimensions of socialism. The ability of the intellectual Left to survive the catastrophe of its Communist enchantments derives from its essentially religious nature, and reminds us that it is this very attitude, impervious to historical experience and resistant to reason, that remains a durable obstacle to political and social progress.
This book is, finally, about what it means to be a conservative in America, to be “Right” in a context in which conserving the constitutional foundations means defending a fundamentally liberal framework. It seeks to provide a philosophical underpinning for the contemporary conservative coalition that would be broader and more stable than the one that now exists.
The essays were written during and after the fall of the Marxist empire. Three of them—”Unnecessary Losses,” “The Road to Nowhere,” and “The Religious Roots of Radicalism”—are discussed in my autobiography, Radical Son, and are intellectual threads of the odyssey it describes. Although the essays are discrete and self-sufficient, they make up a coherent whole, and are intended to be read in the sequence in which they are presented.