The Left Will Always Be with Us

In a January 3, 2018 article for American Thinker, "The Left's 1942," J.R. Dunn argues that leftism may be approaching its last days, at least in the U.S.  Its losses, failures, and absurdities have ensured its gradual demise.  "While certainly not as dramatic as the events of WWII," Dunn writes, "the political defeat of leftism may well be just as decisive."

"Never in my memory," Dunn concludes, "has leftism been so disarrayed and subdued.  For the first time in many decades, we can turn our eyes toward the bright sunlit uplands, where liberty reigns, and where each may abide by his vine and fig tree and be not afraid."

Dunn's assessment deserves to be taken seriously.  The author of a major political work, Death by Liberalism, he has considerable authority to pronounce on the present condition of the liberal-left project. In that book, Dunn expresses his conviction that any government that denies the social "compact" or "bargain" between government and governed will ultimately collapse, "as surely as the British went in 1781, as the imperial states after WWI, as the [USSR] went in 1991."  We may add that the latest instance of total socialist miscarriage is the oil-rich state of Venezuela, now officially out of gas.

This domino effect is certainly the case in individual historical episodes.  But hybristic liberalism – aka utopianism, leftism, communism, fascism, or any of the sobriquets by which it is known – is a Hydra-headed phenomenon that, after every defeat, inevitably regenerates.  As Jean-François Revel wrote in The Totalitarian Temptation (1976), "[t]he only way to reform [c]ommunism is to get rid of it," yet even he, in Last Exit to Utopia (2000) admitted "[c]ommunism's ongoing capacity for ideological terror."

It seems to me that what we now call "leftism" or any of its nominal substitutes will always be with us.  It is an indelible part of human nature, going back to time immemorial and probably rooted in the necessary sharing arrangements of primitive or subsistence societies.  Socialism also has a message that it relentlessly disseminates.  As Dunn himself points out in Death by Liberalism, dictatorial liberalism – that is, leftism – has profited and spread by virtue of an ideological component abetted by modern technology and communication systems.  "Ideology provided the dictators," he explains, "with a means of mobilizing support and instilling revolutionary zeal."  It was – and is – no longer merely a question of jackboots and tanks; the ideological message and missionary zeal guarantee the longevity of the doctrine being propagated.

Further, the doctrine is interpreted and promulgated by the left in a quasi-divine manner as the secular word of God, which is why it is inimical to counter-argument and will not tolerate dissent.  It has proliferated in various forms and guises, theories and practices, right up to the present moment.  Once a ruthless necessity for survival in raw man-vs.-nature circumstances and, also, in its purest form, an expression of human nobility – i.e., caritas – the egalitarian ethos has been warped, deformed, and made monstrous, owing to the human tendency toward envy, resentment, betrayal, and sheer greed.  One thinks of Immanuel Kant's dictum in The Idea of Universal History: "[o]ut of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

This is particularly true of the socialist dogmatic.  Different manifestations of political "leftism" will succeed for a time and inevitably fail, only to re-emerge from the detritus in some other embodiment.  It is here to stay – and must be constantly fought.  This war will never cease, any more than the devil will ever relent.  And despite occasional victories, it is a war that conservatives cannot decisively win – not only because the utopian passion is perennial, but because genuine conservatives, unlike their leftist antagonists, tend to be decent people who have rarely minded spirited and lucid debate with adversaries.

Leftism, however, is a closed intellectual world.  It survives in large measure because it is immune to facts.  Rousseau laid down the socialist ground plan in his 1754 Discourse on Inequality, when he wrote: "Let us begin ... by laying aside facts, for they do not affect the question[.]"  Its canons are regarded as sacrosanct, and those who would open that world to dialogue or dispute are pro forma denounced and pilloried as heretics – or simply annihilated.  After all, it is hard to give up the socialist dream, even among the most reflective.

To take a resonant example, a brilliant mind and wise soul like the socialist thinker Sidney Hook can acknowledge in his autobiography Out of Step what Daniel Bell "called the 'failure of socialism' as one of the outstanding developments of the twentieth century."  Hook recognizes the decline in productivity and the "erosion in the skills of craftsmanship and in the work ethic" as features of socialist dispensations and fully understands "the instability of [s]ocialist welfare states, unable to control inflation [and] eliminate mass unemployment."  Yet he cannot surrender the socialist dream, confessing that "I still have faith that the democratic welfare societies of the West can be reformed of their waywardness, to function efficiently without creating a permanent welfare class and its evils."

The book was published in 1986.  A generation later, one need merely cast a cursory glance at Europe and much of the Anglosphere to realize how wrong Hook was: enormous debt and unfunded liabilities, rising unemployment, defective medical provisions, a vast parasitical bureaucracy, sub-replacement fertility ratios, social unrest, and a mega-welfare class.  Yet we can also see how powerful and seductive the socialist fantasy can be.  It speaks to the best in us and infallibly produces the worst in us.

So, pace J.R. Dunn, I don't know about the sunny uplands.  I suspect we will always be entangled in the dark vales of a utopian ideology that needs fighting.