Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The True Nature of the Left

It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan and there is a lot of interest in the question of whether Reagan facilitated a permanent change in American politics by building the conservative movement into a majority movement. Since the overblown rhetoric about a "new permanent majority" for the Democrats after the 2008 election, it has become crystal for all but those most blinded by partisanship that the 2008 election was an anomaly, a perfect storm quite likely never to be repeated for a generation. Thus, the question of Reagan's ongoing relevance is understandably a live one.

In The Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Bell has an excellent article on Reagan and the three pillars of the conservative movement: fiscal conservatism, foreign policy conservatism and social conservatism. It is entitled "The Future of Reaganism." I want, however, to quote from the section on social conservatism.
"In retrospect, it seems clear that the greatest of the three challenges facing conservatism in Reagan’s years as an elective politician was the worldwide social and cultural upheaval that erupted in the 1960s, and has continued in one form or another ever since. Certainly it is the issue cluster where the left has been most consistently on the offensive in the politics of the last half century. It has left European conservatism a shadow of its former self, with the richest nations of Europe disintegrating before our eyes. Their churches have emptied and their non-Islamic marriages produce few children when such couples bother to get married at all. A single generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact brought democracy to virtually every country in Europe, voters in those same countries have watched their own political elites cede wide swaths of power to unelected bureaucrats of the European Union in Brussels.

The earliest manifestation of this worldwide social upheaval was militant student unrest beginning in 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley. From the beginning, Reagan’s political rise was intertwined with conservative opposition to this unrest. As much as he was influenced by libertarian economics, there was not a trace of libertarian tolerance in his stance on social disorder. Reagan was elected governor by a million votes in 1966 as a firm exponent of enforcing the rule of law, both on campuses and in response to such upheavals as the massive black rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965. He did so with some success, as did other conservative political leaders in this country and abroad.

But the 1960s upheavals were anything but one-dimensional. In fact, in the wake of the multinational 1968 uprisings in such diverse nations as Mexico, France, and Germany, as well as in the United States after the King assassination, the threat of violent revolution faded, as did the prospect of breakthrough gains for the economics-centered old left. By the end of the 1970s, the left was deemphasizing socialism and returning to its oldest and most authentic roots.

These lay in the turbulent streets of the Paris of the 1790s, the decade when the left first got its name based on the seating location of the Jacobins and their allies in the National Assembly. The Jacobin left was not about ownership of the means of production, but about liberation as a way of returning to what it saw as Rousseau’s vision of Natural Man. This meant, to left politicians like Robes-pierre, liberation not simply from the key political institutions of the Bourbon monarchy and aristocracy, but (far more importantly) from such social institutions as the church and family. These had to be downgraded or discarded because the left’s vision of human freedom tended toward an autonomy that involved zero obligation to other persons.

This is why, given the popular backlash to overt violence by protesters and rioters, the left’s successful line of attack became centered on the sexual revolution. In his first term (1967-71) as governor, Reagan signed bills liberalizing abortion and divorce. These were sold to him and to the California public as reasonable if minor adjustments to overly rigid current law, but it soon became evident that they were part of a fundamental revolution in the status of marriage and the family.

Reagan drew correct conclusions about the nature and agenda of social liberalism. He underwent a conversion experience and became a staunch pro-lifer after Roe v. Wade in 1973. He put the first unabashedly pro-life plank in the Republican platform upon his nomination in 1980​—​the same year that the Democrats’ platform became unequivocally pro-choice. When Reagan picked his chief primary challenger George H.W. Bush as his vice presidential running mate, it was understood as a condition of acceptance that Bush would switch from pro-choice to pro-life. Bush did so and never switched back."

Read it all here. (HT to Dave Graham for calling my attention to this article.)

I just want to make two comments.

First, no one can blame Reagan too much for undergoing a conversion from the pro-choice to the pro-life position in the 1960 and 70s. Many other people did so as well. The point is that it was a matter of conviction and morality with him and he did much to advance the cause.

Second, Bell perceptively gets to the heart of what I frequently on this blog call "The Left." Some of those on the Left are Fabian socialists, some are social democrats, some are progressives, some are Marxists. But to think that only the out and out Marxists are dangerous is naive. The roots of the Left go deeper than Marx to Rousseau and to the Romantic religion of the autonomous self, a religious and philosophical position that denies original sin and the need for salvation in order to set people "free" to be self-creators. It is a fundamental rebellion against God, created order, fixed morality, social stability, the family and natural law.

It often takes a Marxist form because it shares a lust for violent revolution with the Marxists believing naively that whatever emerges from the ashes is bound to be better than the status quo. But when it protests that it wants nothing to do with the Tsarist barbarianism that was Stalinism, it is best to believe that it is being sincere. But it is crucial to be clear about what it hates about Stalinism. It does not hate the Promethean attempt to remake man and society according to a romantic dream. Rather, it hates the police state measures used by the Party to keep itself in power after revolutionary dreams have faded. Yes, it is anti-Stalinism but it shares much with Stalinism at a deeper level than economics.

This Rousseauean, Romantic Left is sometimes known as "Cultural Marxism" and it is the driving force behind the sexual revolution. It is also strongly embedded in today's "Green Movement." It is driven by nihilism and has no goal but destruction. There is no use seeking out its redeeming features for it has none. It is the "spirit of the age" and the "spirit of the antichrist." It cannot be tamed, reasoned with or kept within limits. It must be fought tooth and nail. The future of all culture, science, art, civilization and humane ways of life are at stake.


S Masson said...


I have been saying everything you have said consistently (as a Romantics scholar) for a decade. The other implication of what you are saying is that Romanticism (and Schleiermacher's modern hermeneutics which entrenches a commensurate practice of understanding the text) lies behind the theological erosion in the church and society since that time.

I suggested that in the humanities (broadly my discipline) the problem lay in moving away from a theological anthropology towards a a self-defined 'humanistic' one. The change is conceptually presented in the now ubiquitous 'human sciences' (Geisteswissenschaften), which have acted like a cuckoo bird, laying its eggs in another bird's nest (the humanities) and taking over as its rightful owner.

I think that the move away from the humanities in favour of the human sciences is the beginning of the crisis in the university (which everyone is now talking about).

Craig Carter said...

I agree that the "long march" of the cultural Marxists through the universities since the 60s has created a crisis in the whole idea of the university.

First, this nihilistic view of man was applied to the social sciences. This involved an application of a method of seeking only efficient causation and ignoring personal and final causation in imitation of what been going on in the physical sciences since Descartes and Newton and in the life sciences since Darwin. This produced an anti-human, amoral kind of "science of the manipulation of man" which we see today in all the social sciences from psychology to management to sociology. This occurred in the first half of the 20th century.

Second, this kind of method was applied to the humanities from the 1960s on and the result has been the plain destruction of English Literature as a humane subject of learning. History is also affected, as are all the humanities. Classics has been killed in the late modern university, English is on the ropes and all the other humanities are in danger.

What is going on is the destruction of the raison d'etre of the university: the giving up of the quest for the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which are no longer believed to exist.

In a real sense the university itself is based on faith and if it loses its faith is will not survive. Plato's Academy was based on a faith in the rationality of the cosmos. The universities that arose in the Medieval Era were based on the doctrine of creation that guarantees the rationality of the cosmos and a correspondence between the logos in the cosmos, the mind of man made in the image of God and the logos of the Triune God.

All this has been largely lost, although God has reserved 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Bael.

S Masson said...


I don`t tend to use the Aristotelian notion of causality to describe the problem (though that`s a quibble), but I do agree on everything but the dating.

The problem did not begin in the 1960s. That's just when the 'revolution' took place which was plainly evident to previous generations.

Its roots are in the very inception of the modern human sciences as modeled by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his university, and in the Prussian education system he established - which was soon emulated in the public school systems established shortly thereafter in the U.S. and Canada.

I`m glad to hear that there are 7000 left. It does sometimes seem like 7.

Craig Carter said...

We should talk further about causation. It is not only way to define the problem.

The issue is whether or not scientific explanation and theories that address only material and efficient cause constitute adequate explanations. In some cases, no doubt, they do. But the problem is reductionism of the personal to the impersonal, of mind to matter, of the soul to the body, of final & formal cause to material and efficient cause, of persons to machines, of beauty to brain sensations, of morality to will, and of life to particles in motion.

Aristotle alone is not the answer, but Aristotle's account of causation integrated into an Augustinian/Neo-Platonic worldview developed as a result of the encounter of Biblical revealtion and Greek philosophy in the Fathers is, I think, helpful. This, of course, is the project of Thomas Aquinas and is carried on in Reformation Scholasticism.