Below is a copy of what originally appeared in Front Page Magazine at: http://frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=1226
A much longer monograph version of the paper is available here
There is now also a sequel to this article available: See: http://frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=3020 or here
WHAT ARE LEFTISTS
By John J. Ray
FrontPageMagazine.com | June 20, 2002
MOST ORDINARY PEOPLE do not fit very neatly into any political category and may hold to a mix of views that include what would usually be seen as both Leftist and Rightist ideas. Among professional politicians and academics, however, there is generally a clearer polarization. So what is it that makes any given view "Rightist" or "Leftist"? In contemporary North American terms, what is it that makes one an archetypical "liberal" or an archetypical "conservative"? What is a Leftist or a Rightist position on any issue?
The division obviously is real and the demise of the great icon of Leftism -- the Soviet Union -- seems to have had little impact on its intensity. Leftists may no longer have Communism to point to as a possible alternative system but they remain Leftists all the same. The banner cause of Leftists since Karl Marx -- State ownership of the means of production or "socialism" no longer seems reasonable to all but a handful of diehards but Leftists are still Leftists and Rightists are still Rightists and never, it seems, the twain shall meet.
The great rubric of "conservative" long fastened on Rightists seems equally moribund. "Conservative" is generally amplified as meaning "opposed to change" or "favoring the status quo" but from the Reagan/Thatcher years onward, Rightists have been the great advocates and practitioners of social and political change. Rightists have been almost revolutionary in tearing down the proud edifices of the Left -- with privatization, deregulation, welfare cutbacks, tax reductions etc. Judging by the politics of the last 20 years, Rightists love change! Certainly, they have clearly and energetically changed what was once the status quo.
So what is going on? What is Leftism/liberalism and why are people Leftist/liberal? What, if anything, do people have in common who describe themselves (and are described by others) as "Leftists", "socialists", "social democrats", "Communists" and (in North America) "liberals"?
My answer may seem at first paradoxical but it is that attitude to the status quo defines Leftists rather than Rightists. It is not Rightists who are in favour of the status quo. They are in fact indifferent to it and may equally favour it or oppose it according to circumstances. It is Leftists, on the other hand, who are always against the status quo, no matter what. Whatever else the Leftist may be, the bedrock of Leftism is a strong desire or even a need for political change, often extreme change. This does not, of course, mean that Leftists will favour all sorts of change equally. What sort of change the Leftist favours will depend on the needs that drive his/her desire for change.
The Rightist, by contrast, generally has no need either for change or its converse. If anything, Rightists favour progress -- both material and social. So most Rightists are conservatives (cautious) not because of their attitude to change per se. On some occasions they may even agree with the particular policy outcomes that the Leftist claims to desire. They resist change, then, mainly when it appears incautious -- and they are cautious (skeptical of the net benefits of particular policies) generally because of their realism about the limitations (selfishness, folly, shortsightedness, aggressiveness etc.) of many of their fellow humans (Ray, 1972b, 1974 & 1981). So it is only vis a vis Leftists that the Right can on some occasions and in some eras appear conservative (cautious about proposals for social change).
Wanting to change the existing system is however the umbrella under which all Leftists at all times meet. Even at the height of British socialism, for instance, British Leftists still wanted more socialism. That permanent and corrosive dissatisfaction with the world they live in is alone what makes people Leftists. That is all they have in common. They are extremely fractious and even murderous towards one-another otherwise (e.g. Stalin versus Trotsky). It is in describing his fellow revolutionaries (Kautsky and others) that Lenin himself spoke swingeingly of "the full depth of their stupidity, pedantry, baseness and betrayal of working-class interests" (Lenin, 1952). He could hardly have spoken more contemptuously of the Tsar.
One thing that Leftists will not allow themselves to be seen as is racist. Leftists can grudgingly be Nationalists -- Gough Whitlam, the great hero of the Australian Left, certainly was an unashamed nationalist, as were those great champions of the Argentinean "descamisados", Juan and Eva Peron, and as is the Communist Kim dynasty in North Korea with their catastrophic doctrine of "juche" (national self-reliance) -- but Leftists cannot admit any significance for race. If they do, they are immediately relabeled as Rightist. Being racist is enough in the Left lexicon to make you Rightist regardless of anything else you might believe or advocate. They even managed to ignore the huge example of Hitler's extreme socialism (income leveling, worker advocacy, heavy government control of industry and everything else) and call him Rightist. He was a Nationalist (that can be allowed) but he was a racist (not allowed). So people like Adolf Hitler and Pim Fortuyn (the homosexual Dutch political leader assassinated by a Green activist in May, 2002) are Rightist only by arbitrary definition. What they advocated was generally Leftist (The full name of Hitler's political party -- generally abbreviated as "Nazi" -- says it all: The National Socialist German Worker's Party). So Left-wing racism does not exist only because it is defined out of existence.
As Australian anthropologist Ron Brunton points out, the late Pim Fortuyn advocated gay marriage, gender equality, liberalized drug laws and criticized a religion which he saw as intolerant and homophobic -- which sounds an awful lot like the Leftists of his era -- but because he also wanted to stop further immigration into his already densely populated country he became, "Hey presto!", a "Right-wing extremist"! Brunton also points out that there is much in the rhetoric of prominent French anti-immigrant politician Jean-Marie Le Pen which would get him described as a Leftist were it not for his racial views.
It might be argued that, whatever their motivations, Leftists do some good by their vocal condemnation of "racism" -- and that may well be so. But group loyalty is -- as Brown (1986) concluded from his summary of the mass of research on the question -- a "ineradicable, universal human attribute" so the risk is that Leftists can characterize as racist almost anyone who is honest about his feelings of group identity -- however harmless and non-malevolent those feelings may be. In other words, Leftists too often carry their condemnation of racism to a ridiculous and unfair degree. They do so because it is in fact just a ploy for them -- a ploy to obtain kudos. The reality that we all like our own kind best is simply of no interest to them.
There are exceptions to every rule, however, and there is one form of racism that Leftists do allow themselves. A great Leftist cause for the last 30 or more years has been "affirmative action" -- which normally translates into deliberate discrimination against whites -- which is as blatantly racist as any policy could be. The policy is normally justified as needed in order to restore "balance" and reverse the discrimination of the past but if that were the motive such a policy would also be used to restore political balance in the social science and humanities schools of Western-world universities -- given the huge preponderance of Leftists teaching in such schools and the virtual barring of Rightists there (Kramer, 1999; Horowitz, 1999; Redding, 2001; Sommer, 2002). Needless to say, no affirmative action policy leading to the preferential hiring of conservatives exists in any major Western university. Clearly, then, affirmative action is a claim of righteousness and moral superiority for Leftists, nothing more. A Leftist will happily be racist if it enables him to make that claim.
Another perhaps amusing exception for the poor old Leftist is that one of the many hatreds he is allowed is almost racist: He is allowed to be anti-American. It might be objected that anti-Americanism is not racist because Americans are not a race but the essential point surely is that prejudice and hatred is prejudice and hatred, however the target group is defined. And the events of September 11, 2001 surely show that hatred of America (whether by Leftists or others) can be as malign, mindless and dangerous as any other form of prejudice.
The reason behind Leftist anti-Americanism is that America sits at the pinnacle of the existing world power structure and a desire to tear down existing power structures -- for whatever reason -- is indisputably at the core of what Leftism is about. Americans are offensively un-equal. And even Americans can be anti-American. Many US liberals are routinely critical of almost everything about their country -- a country in which untold millions of people from around the world would love to settle, given half a chance. Some American liberals even seem to see American society as rotten to the core, which, in a generally patriotic world, is fairly surprising. It is however explicable as envy and frustration at the vast influence that American society and the American common culture undoubtedly wield over both individual Americans and the world at large. The American way of life and thinking must be a frustrating behemoth indeed for those who would wish to change it.
Even a Leftist realizes that it is pretty vacant simply to be against the status quo. He has to have something a bit more substantial to say than that in order to get any attention at all. But his best attempt at finding something substantial to say is still pretty pathetic. What he says is: "All men are equal" and "The government should fix it". The proverbial Blind Frederick could see that all men are not equal and anybody who thinks that governments are good at doing things can only be pitied. Nonetheless, "Equality" is the Leftist's claimed ideal and government action is the way he proposes to bring it about.
So given his slender intellectual and rhetorical resources, the Leftist has to make up for their emptiness by advocating them both blindly and vigorously. If all men are equal, then all races must be equal too, mustn't they? So the Leftist cannot allow any form of race awareness unless he gives up one of the two slender straws that he clutches at in order to give himself something to say.
Why do Leftists rely so heavily on their two particular vacuous slogans? It is because they are not really interested in solving any problems at all. They are only interested in stirring up change. Really solving social and economic problems in our complex society requires thought, detailed enquiry, in-depth understanding of the problem, creative thinking and patience -- and the typical Leftist is simply not interested in all that. All he or she wants is change. "Get the government to pass a law" is the Leftist's simplistic "solution."
"Government" as a Solution
One hardly needs to give examples of government inability to solve problems but, if an example is needed, the way Argentina's Juan Peron proposed to deal with rising prices is at least amusing: He threatened to shoot any shopkeeper who put his prices up. Needless to say this was a good way of getting shopkeepers to shut their doors and turn Argentina into one big black market -- thus driving prices up -- but it was not a solution to anything. Risible though Peron's ideas may have been, however, the reliance on coercion by Communist regimes was not dissimilar and was equally counterproductive and impoverishing. Coercion of any sort or degree -- whether by governments or anybody else -- is generally a poor and ineffective way of doing things.
Furthermore, governments everywhere remove large slices of the workforce out of productive activity and into paper-shuffling so are principally successful at impoverishing their communities but Leftists in some way manage not to care about that despite their vocal claim to be concerned about poverty. If they really were concerned about poverty, they would want to reduce the number of things government did! That they do not shows the hollowness of their "concern".
The now worldwide trend towards privatization and deregulation, however, shows that even governments themselves eventually have to admit that their cures are often worse than the disease. When governments as diverse as the "Communists" of China and the Hindu nationalists of India have now embraced deregulation and privatization (with great success), the continuing Left/liberal infatuation with government exposes them as the dinosaurs in the world of ideas.
Not that old ideas need be wrong: The seminal conservative political philosopher, Edmund Burke (1907), was a great advocate of limited power for government and saw in the 18th century that government attempts at "compulsory equalizations," would lead to "equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary" -- and 20th century Socialist and Communist governments amply validated that prophecy.
And "all men are equal" (to the extent to which it is seriously meant rather than being merely a rhetorical ploy) is perhaps even more vacant an idea than the idea of relying on government -- since almost our entire social arrangements are predicated on all men (and women) not being equal: We don't regard criminals and honest people as the same, men and women as the same, sane people and mentally ill people as the same, kind people and unkind people as the same, attractive and unattractive people as the same, clever and dumb people as the same, athletic and unathletic people as the same, scientists and roadworkers as the same etc., etc. And there is no doubt that tall men and busty women have an easier time with the opposite sex. There is fierce discrimination rather than equality in the mating game. So why are Leftists so enamoured of their absurd "equality" idea? Because if the Leftist is right and all men (and women) are really equal then everything in our society is wrong and in need of change. It is a way for the Leftist to say (paradoxically) to others: "You are all wrong and I am better and wiser and kinder than you".
That the "all men are equal" maxim appears to have arisen out of Christian idealism and that a form of it is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence does not make it any less risible today. A common attempt to make it less risible for the non-religious is to add "before the law" to it. But that too is thoroughly counterfactual. Our treatment before the law is very unequal and seems destined to remain so. Most of us cannot afford the law at all. Clearly both the very rich and the very poor (who get legal aid in most advanced countries) are very much at an advantage before the law. This is not to deny that equality before the law is a worthy ideal: In a democracy it is obviously important for governments to be seen to be as fair and as impartial as possible in dealing with all their citizens -- but the imperative for that does not have to come from a quasi-religious myth.
Leftists seem very often to be irreligious if not anti-religious (except insofar as Leftism itself is some sort of secular religion) so will often reject the notion that all men are "created" equal and will -- when pressed -- sometimes justify their endless and characteristic advocacy of equality by saying that what they really mean by their doctrine is that all men are of "equal value" or some such. But of equal value to whom? And how do we know? Short of resorting to religion again to answer such questions, the slogan then quickly reduces to a recommendation that all individuals be treated equally -- and that is something that no human or animal society has ever done or seems likely to do, so the doctrine remains a pious absurdity.
And the competing conservative doctrine that each person should be treated "fairly" -- i.e. according to his or her "desserts," however determined -- seems to remain anathema to most Leftists, at least in theory (in part, perhaps, because it requires more complex judgments and so is less suitable for propaganda purposes). Conservatives also normally see it as fair that all children be given "equal opportunity" by the educational system but that quite large ideal is usually still not nearly enough to satisfy Leftists.
The New Left
Largely because its intellectual resources were so slender, Leftist advocacy as we once knew it in the Western world clearly suffered a body blow from the collapse of its great "alternative" and alleged exemplar of equality -- The Soviet Union -- so most Leftists have had to find new directions for agitation in recent years. Criticizing our unequal capitalist society has become much less plausible now that capitalism seems to be the only show in town.
There have therefore arisen various new foci for Leftist discontent. One of these is the "political correctness" movement -- which is an attempt to move the focus of agitation away from economic reform towards social reform. This movement functions in two major ways: It attempts to change the way we think about less fortunate groups in the world by altering the words we use to describe them, and, in good Nazi book-burning fashion, it also attempts simply to suppress knowledge and debate. For example, it suppresses mention of any proposition that offers explanations of why some groups are less fortunate and are likely to remain so regardless of any amount of Leftist agitation -- the claim that blacks have an inherited lower average IQ than whites, for instance. For a quite recent and striking example of such a suppression effort, witness the recent pulping of Brand's (1996) very scholarly book on IQ by his own publisher (Wiley of the US) when the political unpalatability (to Leftists) of his inheritance data became obvious. There is obviously no way that Leftists/liberals believe in such "bourgeois" ideals as freedom of speech. Ray (1972a) also pointed out long ago how not even the most overwhelming evidence on any question is ever deemed sufficient if it contradicts Leftist preconceptions.
How heavily the Leftist obsession with equality (and their consequent procrustean unwillingness to handle the complexities of the real world) influences the PC movement can perhaps be seen most clearly in the actions of a British welfare agency who banned a job advertisement because it discriminated against unfriendly people! A company placed the advertisement looking for a "friendly person" for a catering-related job but the local Job Centre rejected it because they said it "may discriminate against certain applicants". (See the Bolton Evening News of June 7, 2002.)
Censorship is however obviously not a dramatic enough pursuit for many Leftists so they have turned to such unlikely targets as globalization and the World Trade Organization as foci for their ire. The sole aim of the WTO is to increase co-operation and interdependence between nations and thus reduce barriers to the free movement of goods and people between nations, so one might naively have thought that the advocates of "all men are equal" would approve of it. That modern-day Western Leftists oppose the WTO and other summit organizations with broadly similar aims (such as the Davos World Economic Forum) is, then, an index of how desperate they have become for something to protest about in the post-Soviet world.
Globalization as a general concept too is a rather surprising target for the Left -- given that the United Nations was once a great icon and hope of Western Leftists and given that Leftists once prided themselves on being internationalists: "Workers of the world unite", the Comintern (Communist International) and the "international brigades" of Leftist volunteers who fought Generalissimo Franco in the Spain of the 1930s, for instance. Globalization has of course been doing its work of spreading prosperity throughout the world for well over a century (at least since Britain's repeal of the corn laws) but only recently do Leftists seem to have discovered its "evils". Prince Albert, 19th century humanitarian and consort of Britain's Queen Victoria, was one of the most prominent early advocates of globalization -- precisely because of its effects in reducing poverty. So the Leftist opponents of globalization would appear to have been missing the big game for a long time!
Opposition to globalization is however too readily identified as a lunatic fringe activity to satisfy everyone on the Left so other things needing change have had to be found. And, in fact, even reactionary change has been embraced. "Reactionary" was once almost a swear-word to the Left but, if a reactionary is someone who wants to put social and economic change into reverse gear and return the world to some sort of idealized and simpler past, the major reactionary movement in the Western world today is undoubtedly the "Green" movement. One sometimes gets the impression that only the entire elimination of the human race would satisfy the Greens in their desire to return the world to a pristine state. Certainly no concession to their aims ever seems enough to satisfy them.
The wish for nature conservation and reclamation has a long and honourable past -- including among its advocates most English-language poets from at least the 18th century onwards (Who can forget William Blake's "dark Satanic mills"?). And no one has ever set aside a greater area for nature conservation than US Republican President Theodore Roosevelt did -- and that was roughly a century ago. And while there are still some environmental causes that represent undramatic, largely uncontroversial and sensible improvements to our quality of life and the prospects for our future (e.g. control of farmland degradation), many others are quite fanciful, extreme and ill-founded (as the statistician Lomborg, 2001, has shown at length). Modern-day "Greenies" go well beyond mere nature conservation in what they seek and are very strong and relentless advocates of change to practically all of our existing arrangements and systems. And that suits change-hungry and drama-hungry Leftists down to the ground. So therefore many "Reds" have in recent times become "Greens" and Red-Green alliances spring up with some frequency
The fact that nature conservation and reclamation has never previously in its long past attracted much Leftist attention does suggest that their recent interest in it lies not in the cause itself but rather in the drama and disruption that modern day Greenies create in pursuit of their goals. Many Green advocacy groups -- such as Greenpeace -- provide opportunity for drama and self-advertisement aplenty.
The Making of a Leftist
Before considering what it is that causes a person to be a Leftist it should be well noted that a person who votes for a Leftist party may not necessarily himself be much of a Leftist. He may vote for the Leftist party simply because the Leftists appear to offer him personally a better deal. The Leftist's enthusiasm for equality, for instance, tends to create the impression that the Leftists will manage to give poorer or working class people a bigger slice of the national cake -- and poorer people must obviously find that at least initially appealing. Lipset (1959) pointed out long ago, however, that poorer or working class people may in fact be generally and even strongly conservative despite their (self-interested) vote for a Leftist political party. This tendency towards conservatism among working class people has been noted at least since the time of British Prime Minister Disraeli in the 19th century (McKenzie & Silver, 1968) and is so prevalent that it forms a vital electoral support for conservative political parties. How? Because something like a quarter of working class people are in fact so conservative (accepting of inequality etc.) that they resist the blandishments of the Left and vote conservative -- against what would initially seem to be their class self-interest (McKenzie & Silver, 1968; Ray, 1972c). So the primary concern of the present paper is with "real" Leftists -- people who subscribe to and promote a Leftist ideology rather than those who merely vote Leftist.
So why does an ideological Leftist oppose the existing social, economic and political order? Why are they so keen on advocating change, no matter how irrational or counter-productive it might be? There can in fact be many reasons why and for many Leftists more than one of the reasons listed below will apply.
The simplest reason may simply be that one is born into a Leftist outlook. Being born into a Northern English or Scottish working-class environment, for instance, almost guarantees that one will favour a Leftist stance on many issues. Union activity and Leftist advocacy generally has been so strong for so long there that it has radicalized in many ways what might otherwise be a fairly conservative population and caused Leftist views to become simply traditional there. One might say that the explanation for Leftism there is a "sociological" one.
Another example of such a "sociological" cause for Leftism would be the way in which US college students are radicalized by the predominantly liberal academic environment of US humanities and social science schools. To be liberal in such an environment is almost a survival need (Sommers, 2002). And schoolteachers too, often seem to be Leftist. Many of those who lecture and control others in their working hours would seem to want to carry on doing so after work as well.
The focus in the present paper, however, is more on "psychological" causes. What makes someone "voluntarily" a Leftist? What makes someone a Leftist who does not come from a predominantly Leftist environment? What makes a Leftist that comes from inside the Leftist himself rather than coming from an accident of birth or social position?
It is submitted here that the major psychological reason why Leftists so zealously criticize the existing order and advocate change is in order to feed a pressing need for self-inflation and ego-boosting -- and ultimately for power, the greatest ego boost of all. They need public attention; they need to demonstrate outrage; they need to feel wiser and kinder and more righteous than most of their fellow man. They fancy for themselves the heroic role of David versus Goliath. They need to show that they are in the small club of the virtuous and the wise so that they can nobly instruct and order about their less wise and less virtuous fellow-citizens. Their need is a pressing need for attention, for self-advertisement and self-promotion -- generally in the absence of any real claims in that direction. They are intrinsically unimportant people who need to feel important and who are aggrieved at their lack of recognition and power. One is tempted to hypothesize that, when they were children, their mothers didn't look when they said, "Mummy, look at me".
This means that the "warm inner glow" that they obtain from their advocacy and agitation is greatly prized. So it is no wonder that anything which threatens to disturb it -- such as mere facts -- is determinedly ignored. This view of Leftism as a club of the righteous that must never be disturbed or threatened is explored in detail by Warby (2002). See also Ridley (2002) for a brief account of the way Lomborg's findings were greeted primarily by abuse rather than by any serious attempt at refutation.
And, of course, people who themselves desperately want power, attention and praise envy with a passion those who already have that. Businessmen, "the establishment", rich people, upper class people, powerful politicians and anybody who helps perpetuate the existing order in any way are seen by the Leftist as obstacles to him having what he wants. They are all seen as automatically "unworthy" compared to his own great virtues and claims on what they already have. "Why should they have...?" is the Leftist's implicit cry -- and those who share that cry have an understanding of one-another that no rational argument could achieve and that no outsider can ever share.
Envy is a very common thing and most of us have probably at some time envied someone but, for someone with the Leftist's strong ego needs, envy becomes a hatred and a consuming force that easily accounts for the ferocious brutality of Communist movements and the economically destructive policies (such as punitively high taxation, price controls and over-regulation generally) employed by Leftists in resolutely democratic societies. So the economic destruction and general impoverishment typically brought about by Leftists is not as irrational as it at first seems. The Leftist actually wants that. Making others poorer is usually an infinitely higher priority for him than doing anybody any good. One suspects that most individual Leftists realize that no revolution or social transformation is ever going to put them personally into a position of wealth or power so the destruction of the wealth and power and satisfaction of those who already have it must be the main thing they hope to get out of supporting Leftist politics. For a fuller account of the enormously destructive nature of envy see Schoeck (1969).
Whether or not someone is important, rich, successful, famous etc., is however of course very much a matter of individual perception. If many of the world's most famous sports stars were introduced to me, for instance, I might well in all innocence proceed to ask them; "And what do you do for a living?" And while Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is my personal hero, there are many, even in academe, who would never have heard of the Mahatma. This "relativity" of importance, prestige etc. would seem to explain why many active Leftists are in fact college or university professors. College or university professor is a generally high status occupation that provides an above-average income so might, on the face of it, be seen as already providing considerable recognition and praise. But if status is precisely why certain people have gone to the considerable trouble generally required to enter that occupation, it could well be that the ego need of that person is so big that even more recognition is then craved. A college professorship may be prestigious but still be seen as providing far too little power, public exposure and opportunity for self-display. "Seeing I am so smart, I should be running the whole show", is an obvious line of thought for such people. Just some power and fame is still not enough power and fame for them.
The need for self-display does however in most people tend to decline as they mature -- which is part of the reason why graduates tend to be less radical than students and why older people tend to be much more conservative than young people (Ray, 1985). To misquote Lenin (1952) only slightly, much of Leftism would appear to be "an infantile disorder".
And nothing above, of course, is meant to suggest that pressing ego needs, self-righteousness etc are confined to Leftists. It is merely meant to say that Leftism is the principal political expression of such needs. Such needs can also be met by religion etc. and it must be noted that Communism was often described as a religion by its critics. Why people choose politics rather than some other means of meeting their ego needs would have to be the subject of a whole new enquiry but it seems possible that the potentially very broad exposure that politics provides to an individual might attract the people with the very highest ego needs. This high level of ego need among Leftists would also explain the generally much greater political activism of the political Left compared to the rather somnolent political Right.
It would also explain why Leftists so often have a "spare me the details" or "Don't worry about the facts" orientation. For most Leftists, it is the activism itself rather than what is advocated that is the main point of the exercise. As long as the cause advocated is both generally praiseworthy and disruptive to implement, that will suffice. The insincerity of the Leftist is of course an abiding theme in the many writings of Ayn Rand (e.g. Rand, 1957) -- who sees the hunger for power as the real motivation behind everything that the Leftist does.
Other Causes of Leftism
Other reasons for Leftism, often combined with or related to the prime one given above, would appear to be:
Some Leftists just think themselves clever for being able to criticize.
Some are genuinely outraged by things that they do not understand and so want to change those things willy nilly.
Some are genuinely grieved by the unhappy experiences of others and want to fix that ASAP without being wise enough to seek for means of fixing it that are not self-defeating.
Some, particularly the young, are idealists who find the imperfect state of the real world unsatisfying.
Some are cynical opportunists who see opportunity for themselves in change.
Some are simply hiding their real hatred of their fellow man in a cloak of good intentions. They want to hurt their fellow man but need to change the system (a "revolution") to get the opportunity of doing so.
Some Leftists know that they themselves are weird so preach change towards greater tolerance for all weirdness out of sheer self-interest.
The Leftist may still be young and unaware of most of life's complexities so that the drastically simple "solutions" and mantras proffered by the Left simply seem reasonable.
The more "revolutionary" and Trotskyite Left often use the word "smash" in their slogans (e.g. smash racism, smash capitalism, smash various political leaders) so it seems probable that some Leftists simply lust to smash things. They seek a socially acceptable excuse for their barely suppressed destructive urges. They presumably are the ones who are responsible for the violence and destruction that often accompanies Leftist street and campus demonstrations. Violent change is what they are interested in. Presumably, in another time and place, many of them would have joined Hitler's Brownshirts.
Another reason that seems worth considering comes from biological theory. If there can be sociological and psychological explanations for Leftism, why not biological ones too? Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) have reported strong genetic heritability for political orientation so the possibility of a biological explanation must be taken seriously. A possible biological or evolutionary explanation would be that Leftism is a remnant of the primitive hunter-gatherer in us. A liking for change might have been highly adaptive among hunter-gatherers because it caused them to wander around the landscape more and thus exposed them to a greater diversity of food-sources. Some support for this is the strong tradition, still occasionally observable today, for Australian Aborigines to want to "go walkabout" (leave their current environment) from time to time. Australian Aborigines were, of course, a purely hunter-gatherer people before the coming of the white man. Against this view, however, one must put the fact that hunter-gatherer societies in general seem to be characterized more by changelessness than anything else. In hunter-gatherer tribes the same things are done in the same way for generation after generation. It could be however that a changeless environment usually prevents significant change in practices regardless of any desire for change. The corollary of this explanation, of course, is that a conservative orientation has been selected for by the requirements of civilization: People who are psychologically settled are needed to make civilization work.
A final possibility is that the appeal of Leftism rests solely on its stress on equality. The French Leftist Todd (1985) has put forward anthropological evidence to suggest that Leftism has strong appeal only in countries where child-rearing practices stress equality of treatment between siblings. Thus Russia showed easy acceptance of Communism because Russian parents normally go to great length to treat all their children equally -- particularly by dividing up inheritances (property) equally. Whereas Britain has only ever had a tiny Communist party because of the traditional English practice of primogeniture -- where the eldest son gets almost all of the inherited property. English child-rearing practices have never had a devotion to treating siblings equally so the English do not usually expect or hope for equality of property distribution in later life. So your attraction to the dream of equality may reflect a childhood where parents imposed a rule of equality. Because of your childhood experiences, equality seems emotionally "right", regardless of its practicality. Note however, that the work by Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) showing that Leftism is to a very considerable extent genetically transmitted rather than learnt militates against this as a general explanation for Leftism. Explanations of Leftism in terms of personality variables -- such as strong ego-need -- do not encounter this objection as the strong genetic transmission of personality characteristics has often been demonstrated (e.g. Lake, Eaves, Maes, Heath & Martin, 2000).
Neo-Liberalism: The Past Revived
What North Americans now call "liberal" is a long way from what was called "liberal" in the 19th century and earlier. Liberal ideas were once those ideas that sought to elevate individual rights above the claims of State and community power and hark back at least as far as the writings of Adam Smith (1776). The writings of J.S. Mill (1859) are, however, most quoted as a comprehensive development of such ideas. Classical liberal ideas had considerable influence in the 19th century -- particularly via Britain and the British Liberal party -- but were very much eclipsed in the early 20th century (as was the British Liberal party) by the rise to prominence of Statist ideas -- particularly Marxist, Fabian and Fascist ideas. Late in the 20th century, however, under the influence of writings by Hayek (1944), Ayn Rand (1977) and many others, these ideas were powerfully revived and extended -- when they came to be known among the cognoscenti as "neo-liberalism" or "Libertarianism". They are perhaps best known to the world at large, however, as "Reaganomics" or "Thatcherism" -- from their most prominent and successful political proponents.
Surprisingly, however, modern-day North American "liberals" and their ilk generally seem to view neo-liberalism as anathema. And in fact Neo-liberalism has found its home entirely on the political Right in recent times. Why? The explanations of Leftist motivation given above would appear to be very helpful in explaining why.
Why "liberals" Hate Neo-liberalism
But the reason why is not initially obvious. Neo-Liberalism of course is very pro-change, particularly in the economic sphere, and aims principally to break down, wherever possible, government-imposed restrictions on what people can do. Its application has led to all sorts of economic reorganization, some of which has been very disruptive to the employment (and hence the lives) of many people. Globalization is just one of its manifestations. So how in heaven's name did such a revolutionary doctrine find its home on the Right rather than among the normally pro-change Leftists?
The answer becomes obvious if we posit that Leftists really have no concern at all about what they are advocating, that they do not really care about human advancement at all, that their "concern" for the poor etc. is a sham. What they really want they want now -- and that is power, simple causes that will win them praise and drama in which they can star as the good guys. That really is about all. And neo-liberalism meets none of those needs. The policies advocated by Neo-liberals do demonstrably lead to slow but steady human economic advancement and do increase prosperity for all to levels once undreamt of in human history. But such policies also diffuse power, are far from simple and are very undramatic. It is hard work just to understand neo-liberalism and there are no immediate rewards inbuilt. One could, for instance, try going onto the streets and demonstrating in favour of "comparative advantage" (one of the essential ideas underpinning advocacy of free trade) but that would almost certainly lead to total incomprehension rather than win kudos.
So neo-liberalism suffers from the huge handicap that it is a highly intellectual body of ideas that requires considerable study and knowledge of economics -- something that Leftists normally seem to avoid like the plague -- in order to understand it fully. It originated with an economist (Smith), it could even be seen as the practical application of modern economics and some of its most prominent proponents have won Nobel prizes for economics (Friedman, Hayek etc.). It is certainly much harder to explain and communicate to laymen than are such simple ideas as "all men are equal" or "get the government to pass a law". And the heroes and villains of neo-liberalism do not suit the Leftist either. The neo-liberal hero (the business entrepreneur) normally has to work long and hard to achieve his status. Storming the Winter Palace (as the Bolsheviks did in October, 1917) or vandalizing Seattle (as the anti-globalization protestors did in December, 1999) are heaps quicker, simpler and easier. And the neo-liberal villain is government! The solitary proposal that Leftists have for solving social ills is snatched away from under them! No wonder Leftists do not like neo-liberalism!
On a more fundamental level, Leftist hostility to neo-liberalism revolves around the fact that governments and their instrumentalities are far and away the most effective means of obtaining and exercising power over large numbers of people. They exist for that purpose. So Leftists -- with their yearning for power and the ego-boost it provides -- will always advocate anything that promises to extend State power -- in the hope that they can influence or participate in the exercise of it. Communist governments, of course, represent an extreme in the exercise of State power and, for this reason, some US "liberals" were once wont to speak indulgently of Communists as being simply "liberals in a hurry". So Leftists are perfectly accurate in seeing neo-liberals -- with their advocacy of reduced and limited State power -- as their deadly and hated enemies.
Conservatives and Neo-liberalism
This did of course mean that neo-liberalism was for a long time largely deprived of a home in politics. Its proposals for globalization had some continuing effect (e.g. through GATT -- the predecesor of the WTO) but, generally, without the energy of Leftists to push it, it languished for most of the 20th century as a purely academic theory. And it was asking a lot for the cautious Right with no intrinsic interest in change to take it up.
But neo-liberalism is in essence perfectly practical (tax cuts, deregulation, privatization etc.) and Rightists have always been interested in practical proposals for human advancement and betterment. To mention just two particularly striking historical examples: Few people could be more Rightist than Prince Otto von Bismarck, Prussia's "Iron Chancellor" of the late 19th century and the man who unified Germany under the Prussian crown by way of successful wars on Austria and France, yet the same man also gave Germany an extensive welfare system (workers compensation, old-age pensions etc.) that exceeded in generosity anything else of its kind in the world of those days.
And what do we make of a war-glorifying, big game hunting, Bible-bashing ex-cowboy who got on his horse and personally led the war to take over the remnants of the Spanish Empire for the USA in the late 19th century and who was the scourge of pacifists in World War I? Someone who was the undoubted darling of Republican Party supporters for many years and twice became Republican President of the United States? A man who put his trust in battleships and whose strong advocacy of war as a necessary purification of the national spirit was soon to be emulated by Messrs. B. Mussolini and A. Hitler? Right-wing enough? Yet Theodore ("Bull Moose") Roosevelt also initiated and got through Congress extensive and ground-breaking consumer protection and worker protection measures and got progressively tougher and tougher on big business throughout his life. Protecting and promoting the welfare of ordinary people is a venerable tradition on the Right, for all the shrillness of Leftist claims to the contrary.
And the traditionally gloomy conservative view of the powers of government -- summed up so succinctly by Edmund Burke (1907) over two centuries ago as: "It is in the power of government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good" -- fits in well with the neo-liberal view that market forces are usually far superior to government activism in producing generally beneficial outcomes.
Furthermore, the practical failure of Leftist economic ideas was well evident to all who would see in the final decades of the 20th century, so that awareness, combined with the rising levels of public education, meant that some limited forms of economic rationality could be made to have popular appeal and get through the processes of democratic politics to implementation. So some Rightists did eventually have enough vision to embrace and promote "neo-liberal" ideas and turned some neo-liberal ideas into reality -- a reality that soon spread throughout the world.
And that is also why roughly the same set of ideas is also sometimes called (rather confusingly) "neo-conservatism" -- though the term "Neo-conservative" is also in the US sometimes used to describe a group of mainly New York intellectuals (Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz etc.) who started out as idealistic "liberals" but who were honest enough to allow themselves eventually to be at least partly overwhelmed ("mugged" in their terms) by reality. The experience that comes with age gradually forces reality onto many of the more idealistic Leftists but the New York Neo-conservatives documented in great detail that process as it happened to them. Their principal journals are Commentary and The Public Interest. Their original focus was primarily anti-Soviet rather than neo-liberal.
Leftists in Power
Although it seems most unlikely that it will ever happen again, there were many occasions in the 20th century when the most extreme form of Leftism -- Communism -- did gain great power in certain countries. Does that experience tell us anything about Leftism?
This paper started out with an endeavour fairly characteristic of modern Anglo-American analytical philosophy (Hospers, 1967): An endeavour to analyse and make coherent the way terms like "Leftist," "Liberal," "Socialist," "Communist" etc are commonly used. Once an underlying focus for such terms had been "discovered", the psychology underlying that focus was considered. The analysis was however principally of what Leftism/liberalism is in the economically advanced countries of the contemporary Western world -- where Leftists have only ever had partial success in implementing their programmes. So what happens when Leftists get fully into power? Does the same analysis apply?
For a start, it should be obvious that the personality and goals of the Leftist do not change just because he gets into power. He is still the same person. And that this is true is certainly very clear in the case of Lenin -- who is surely the example par excellence of a Leftist who very clearly did get into power. In his post-revolutionary philippic against his more idealistic revolutionary comrades, Lenin (1952) makes very clear that "absolute centralization and the strictest discipline of the proletariat" are still in his view essential features of the new regime. He speaks very much like the authoritarian dictator that he was but is nonetheless being perfectly consistent with the universal Leftist wish for strong government power and control over the population. So Leftists in power certainly do not cause the State to "wither away" -- as Marx foresaw in "The Communist Manifesto".
After 1917 change did continue for a few years in Russia while the Communists consolidated their power (e.g. by "liquidating" the Kulaks), but after that Russia settled into a tyranny where State-directed industrialization was the only form of change allowed. After the completion of the revolution, change in Russian society was in fact repressed ferociously. Certainly, no challenges to Russia's new power structure were allowed. Stalin murdered millions without a qualm to ensure that.
But that very State dominance of Russian life did of course eventually cause advanced social and economic sclerosis and stagnation in Russia and its satellites -- leading ultimately to the complete collapse of the Soviet system via Gorbachev's "perestroika" (reconstruction). "Perestroika" implies change so change was in fact the poison that finally destroyed Lenin's legacy. So does that mean that the Soviets were not Leftists? If hunger for change is the defining feature of Leftism, then surely the Bolsheviks ceased to be Leftists in 1917! Surely Lenin and his comrades became conservatives at that point!
Ludicrous though that proposition sounds at first sight, it is precisely the common usage today. Defenders of the old Soviet order and those who wish to return to it in post-Gorbachev Russia are usually referred to in the press as "conservatives". Clearly, the press has adopted the simple (though very unsatisfactory) dichotomy of being for and against change as the definition of Leftism and Conservatism. This does however create the very large problem that precisely the same political policies that are seen in one country (Russia) as being conservative are seen in other countries (e.g. the USA) as wildly Leftist.
Since change is in fact obviously somehow involved in the Left/Right dichotomy and since the aims and practice of the Bolsheviks were perfectly concordant with basic Leftist desires everywhere, this dilemma is not easy to solve. In previous papers (See Leftism.txt and Rightcon.txt on my website), I have leant towards the solution of dismissing the role of change altogether and saying that either Leftists or Rightists will oppose or support change depending on whether they are in power or not. I proposed that it is simply the love or suspicion of State power that defines the Leftist or Rightist. And, as a statement about the psychology of Leftists and Rightists, I still adhere to that view. I think it is evident that most Leftists have a strong basic need for power and dominance and that that flows very simply into the policies that they advocate.
I also think, however, that a definition of any collectivity should rely primarily on what the collectivity does rather than on a theory about how the group is motivated. One has to define the group before one can study it. And a definition of the Western world's Left (but only the Left) in terms of attitude to change both makes sense of common usage and is readily amenable to psychological explanation. Regrettably, however, it seems clear that one cannot define Leftists as being the change-hungry ones of ALL the world and all times. It is a definition that is fully applicable only to the advanced countries of the present Western world.
If a definition of limited applicability is unattractive, however, we can also grasp the other horn of the dilemma and say that Leftists who attain power cease to be Leftists! This jars a little but does make sense psychologically: Once the Leftist's hunger for power and dominance is satisfied, he no longer seeks change and in fact actively opposes it. He becomes a conservative (opponent of change) in a way that a Rightist generally is not. There can be no doubt that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were Rightists but they actively worked to reduce the power, influence and control of the governments that they led. The contrast is very clear. Not everyone is as power-mad as the Leftist. And that hunger for power makes the Leftist in power the most ferocious conservative (opponent of change) of all.
But there is an exception to every rule and the exception in this case is a most instructive one: Mao Tse Tung. Mao's "cultural revolution" was a very strange phenomenon unparalleled in other Communist regimes. And it appeared to do nobody any good -- including Mao himself. It was a vast but entirely destructive upheaval. But it is just what one would expect of someone in love with change. In the case of Mao, we saw a survival into the post-revolutionary era of the old pre-revolutionary longings. He was so in love with change that he had his revolution all over again. Mao was so thoroughly in charge of China, that he could indulge his natural inclinations without endangering his power and what those inclinations were is precisely what we see in Western Leftists to this day: a love of change, preferably revolutionary change. So we can see that power comes first in a Leftist's scale of values but the longing for change per se is always there too.
This conclusion drawn from the grand sweep of history has some counterpart on a much more humble scale in findings from survey research in the western world. Ray (1984) found from a large random sample survey of Australians conducted in the Cold War era that Leftists were sensation-seekers even when the sensations concerned were the sensations provided by consumerism. Rather contrary to their usual image, Leftists were found to be materialists who enjoyed buying mass-marketed "quality" consumer goods even more than Rightists did. Their love of new sensations was so great that they even sought out those provided by their ostensible "enemy" -- consumer capitalism. Clearly, like Mao, their love of novelty was so deep-seated that it overcame other considerations.
I have not made any systematic attempt here to analyze conservatism or the political Right. The focus has been entirely on the political Left (in world terms) or "liberalism" (in North American terms). I have concluded that the one thing all Leftists have in common (until they get into complete power) is a desire for change in society -- and that for most Leftists advocating change serves mainly to meet the Leftist's strong ego-needs -- the need for attention, praise and, ultimately power. Leftists are not therefore really much interested in the reality of what they advocate -- so normally they greatly oversimplify any political issues that they debate -- often to the point of ignoring many of the facts of the matter.
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The full monograph on the psychology and sociology of Leftism.
A much briefer, more academic presentation of the core contentions of the monograph.
The sequel to this present article
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