Making sense history and politics is not easy, and I'm convinced that a large part of the reason is the bewildering array of labels that are bantered about, many of which are often misused even by people who should know better, and some of which make little sense outside of their historical context. The purpose of this post is to help make sense of those labels, and to develop a standard political lexicon that will use in the future to describe certain political viewpoints and outlooks.
Let's begin with the labels “liberal” and “conservative”. Most Americans today seem to think that liberalism and and conservatism equate with specific political platforms or idealogies--for instance, that conservatives favor business and profits while liberals favor workers and the environment. But, that's not the case at all. Conservatism and liberalism are not ideaologies, they are outlooks.
Let me see if I can illustrate this point with two examples from the music industry--Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. People from my generation, and certainly my children's generation, cannot experience Johnny Cash or Elvis the same way that their own generation did. To their own generation, Johnny Cash and Elvis were new, fresh, radical, and subversive. As the legendary "Man in Black" and "King of Rock-and-Roll", they epitomized change and rebellion for many. In this sense, they were clearly “liberal.”
But to younger generations, Cash and Elvis represent just the opposite experience. To the young, they are anachronisms. They are not fresh, they're stale. They are not radical or subversive, but conventional and even fogyish. In short, to today's youth, Cash and Elvis are “conservative”.
So, we can see how a given experience can be labeled by one generation as radically liberal and by another as stodgily conservative. The only difference is…timing. Yesterday's successful liberal movements become, by definition, today's status quo. And, since liberals advocate change while conservatives resist it, today's conservatives are yesterday's liberals.
Politics is no different. The 18th Century’s conservatives right-wingers honored political principles and employed methods which today’s world characterizes as characteristically liberal or leftist. For instance, both 18th Century conservatives and today’s liberals advocate using the state’s legal monopoly on force to coerce individuals into living their lives in socially “desirable” ways, ways that benefit the “community”, the “common good”, the “nation”, the "King", the “church”, the “common will”, or whatever the favored collective unit may be. Thus, the defining characteristic of both yesterday’s conservatives and today’s liberals is sacrifice of personal liberties for the greater good of society.
In the same manner, yesterday’s Jeffersonian liberals, the radical left-wingers of their time, honored principles and promoted methods which today’s world characterizes as generally conservative, libertarian, or even right-wing. For instance, both yesterday’s liberals and today’s "conservative" libertarians generally seek to limit the state’s coercive power in an effort to prevent unwarranted intrusions upon personal liberty. Thus, the defining characteristic of both yesterday’s liberals and today’s libertaraians is promotion of individual freedom through limited government.
By distinguishing at any given time between those who elevate the general welfare over individual liberty and those who honor personal liberties even at the expense of the collective welfare, we can begin to make some since of history's labels. For instance, history calls those who elevate community, society, or nation over the individual “communists”,” socialists”, “nationalists”, or “fascists” (this last term coming from the Italian word “Fascio”, meaning a collective “bundle”). As Jonah Goldberg has noted, “The elevation of unity as the highest social value is a core tenet of fascism and all leftist ideologies.” In contrast, history calls those who favor individual liberty over the collective good—or who believe that individual liberty and the collective good are one and the same--“individualists” or “libertarians”, or sometimes, often improperly, “conservatives”.
But, why so many names to describe the basic concept of collectivists versus individualists? Well, many names are needed because collectivists in particular have had a difficult time agreeming on the collective unit that government will be charged with creating and benefiting. For instance, communism was internationalist from the beginning, or more precisely, transnationalist. It sought to unify and benefit all “workers of the world”, regardless of nationality, race, etc. To do this, it had to destroy any other competing collective ideology, and communism was therefore very antagonistic toward other collective loyalties-—e.g., loyalty to family, faith, tribe, country, etc. In short, communism believed, and rightly so, that these competing loyalties thwarted its goal of assimilating all the world’s workers into its collective. If workers were divided along racial, tribal, national or religious lines, they could never form a truly cohesive proletariat, and communism's ambition could never be realized. Thus, communism was, almost by definition, expansionist and imperialistic.
Unfortunately for communists, the vast majority of humanity still defines itself in terms of the traditional collective units that communism sought to destroy—tribe, race, nation, and religion. So, it should come as no surprise that many people with tribal, national or religious loyalties viewed communism as a bitter pill. And, because communism is inherently expansionist nature, many ultimately came to view it as an existential threat. This is true despite the fact that many, in fact most, of the world's inteligentsia openly sympathized with communism’s goal of employing totalitarian methods to unify and improve society.
I should emphasize here that the word “totalitarian” is much misunderstood today. Whereas we now use it to describe brutal, dictatorial regimes, Jonah Goldberg notes that it originally was meant to describe a “benevolent” dictatorship of the state. The term was originally coined by none other than Benito Mussolini, and the worldwide intellegentsia of the first half of the 20th Century (who were much enamored with Il Duce) often cited the term favorably prior to World War II. Mussolini used the word to describe a socialist state where the total of society’s resources were organized, managed and allocated by the state for the unity and benefit of all Italians: Women would be permitted to vote; pensions would be provided to the aged; and healthcare would become a universal right. No aspect of society was to be immune from accountability to the state for the benefit it produced for its citizens.
Mussolini emphasized that, under totalitarianism, progress would no longer be hampered by endless debates, democratic processes, labor strikes and parliamentary procedures. The systemic inefficiencies caused by “liberal” notions of individualism, competition, and free choice would be eliminated and replaced by a command economy—indeed a command society—where everyone’s efforts would be directed by the state toward the same common end: The Common Good. As Mussolini put it, “everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” In short, the state’s benevolent influence on society was to be total, hence totalitarian. In many ways, the totalitarianism, as advertised by its proponents, was not dissimilar to what we today would call the “nanny state.”
Now, back to the various collectivist labels: It is important to understand that Mussolini's socialism differs from Marxist communism primarily in the definition of the preferred collective unit. The former defines the preferred collective as all members of a particular society, while the latter, as we have discussed, defines it as a transnational social class—the world’s workers. Consequently, socialists, as a rule, are comparatively less aggressive and imperialistic than their communist counterparts, preferring instead to pursue their goal of totalitarian, egalitarian reforms within individual states or communities.
I mentioned previously that those countries with a nationalist or tribal spirit were the ones who felt most threatened by communism’s imperialistic ideology, though I've also noted that intellectuals within even the most nationalistic countries were enamored with communism’s totalitarian “efficiency” and “egalitarian” emphasis. Given this mixture of admiration and fear, it should come as no surprise that someone would attempt to forge a compromise. Thus, in Italy and Germany, and to lesser extent even the United States, certain parties promoted, often forcibly so, a “middle” or “third way”, one that would wed socialist, totalitarian political ideas to nationalistic or tribal identities. Given that the masses were, as previously discussed, favorably disposed to their own national or racial identity, accomplishing this goal was as simple as redefining along national/racial lines the collective unit that the state would seek to unite, benefit and protect. The result was “nationalized socialism”, and it proved incredibly popular.
In Italy, Mussolini nationalized socialism by defining the collective, at least initially, in terms of the “general will” of the people of the Italian nation, calling his movement “fascism”, which again comes from the Italian “fasci”, meaning “bundle” (a perfectly suitable word for such a “collectivist” political philosophy). In Germany, Hitler’s particular variant of “nationalized socialism” defined the collective not along political boundary lines, but rather along racial ones. Thus, Germany’s National Socialist party (or Nazi party for short) sought to employ totalitarian methods to unify, benefit and protect the “Aryan Nation” as a whole. But, since the collective Aryan race was perceived as extending beyond any one nation’s political boundaries, Germany’s variant of nationalized socialism, or what we today generically call fascism, was, like it’s communist grandparent, ominously expansionist.
So, fascism and Communism, while mortal enemies, are not polar opposites as they are commonly understood and portrayed. To quote Jonah Goldberg, they are simply “two dogs fighting over the same bone”--that is, a totalitarian collective--which is why they hated each other so bitterly. As anyone with much life experience can attest, disputes within a “family” are often much more bitter, much more personal and much more vitriolic than disputes with those on the “outside.” This is especially true when each values “unity” above all. After all, whose "unity” will prevail?
Thus, Fascism and National Socialism are shown to be little more than “populist” variants of the collectivist, totalitarian ideal offered by communism. Rather than attempting to erase old racial/tribal/national loyalties and create new social ones (as communists sought to do), fascism took the easy way out. It would not fight the ancient, nationalist sympathies and racial prejudices of the masses. Instead, it would seek to activate and exploit those very impulses to achieve the unity and change it craved. Devout communists were in many ways right to view Fascists as vulgar populists who, in a cynical attempt to gain power, substituted national and/or racial pride and prejudices for the true uniting power of Marxist doctrine. By contrast, the Fascists were also right to see communsists a threat to their national and/or racial identity, and since their personal identity was often invested in their nation/race, to their personal identity as well.
Regardless of their chosen label and their personal animosity to each other, the key insight here is that the general goal and specific methods of communism and fascism were actually very, very similar—that is, each believed in the forced assimilation of individuals into the collective by limiting individual liberty for the greater good.
While distinguishing between those who favor individualism and those who promote collectivism is very helpful in understanding many of history’s (and today's)confusing labels and political trends, this distinction is not sufficient to provide a complete understanding. For we also need to distinguish at any given moment between those who believe that social advancement and evolution (i.e., modernization)is desirable and necessary, and those who perceive it as threatening and ill-considered. The former, who equate modern reforms with progress, are typically referred to as “progressives”, “reformers”, “liberals”, or for historical reasons of little importance, “leftists”. By contrast, those who are inclined to preserve, or conserve, the status quo, and especially those who long to return to a “simpler” age, are called “conservatives”, or for reasons of little historical importance, “right-wingers” or "luddites."
In my view, the trick to gaining a more meaningful understanding of politics and history is to understand that today's most commonly used labels--“liberal”, “conservative”, “right wing” and “leftist”--can only be properly understood in relation to the status quo at any given moment. The essential insight is that, unlike many of the previous labels that we have discussed (communist, socialist, fascist, libertarian, etc.), the latter ones do NOT represent an ideology or a platform, but a mindset. For instance, at the time of America’s founding, when individual liberty was forcibly subordinated to the will of the state (as then embodied in the King), to be a “liberal” for “leftist”—that is, to be against the traditional status quo and for modernity--was to be an individualist, or what we would today call a “libertarian”. It was the leftist “liberals” of the 18th Century who spoke truth to power by advancing individual liberties via such concepts as the natural and inalienable rights of man; limited and divided government; and representative democracy.
That the 18th Century’s liberals succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in achieving their individualist goals, at least in the West, is evidenced by the fact that the “liberals” of this century—i.e., those who seek to change the status quo—are generally of the exact OPPOSITE persuasion. In contrast to yesterday’s liberals, 21st century leftists seek to expand government's influence and authority over the individual in pursuit of the “common good.” When collectivist ideals conflict with individual rights, today's liberals almost always side with the former (witness the most recent gun rights case, D.C. v. Heller).
When did the tables turn? When did being a "liberal" come to mean opposing individual liberties rather than advancing them? Today's liberal viewpoint finds its roots in the "progressive" movement of the early 20th century. For instance, speaking at Oxford University in 1932, H.G. Wells said:
These new organizations [speaking of totalitarian fascist/socialist ones] are not merely organizations for the spread of defined opinions…the days of that sort of amateurism are over—they are organizations to replace the dilatory indecisiveness of [democracy]. The world is sick of parliamentary politics…. The fascist Party, to the best of its ability, is Italy. The Communist Party, to the best of its ability, is Russia. Obviously the Fascists of Liberalism must carry out a parallel ambition on a still vaster scale…. They must begin as a disciplined sect, but they must end as a sustaining organization of a reconstituted mankind. [Quoted in Liberal Facism by Jonah Goldberg.]
Likewise, the great “progressive” liberal and President, Woodrow Wilson, made plain his disdain for the individual rights promoted by America’s Founding Fathers. In his book, Congressional Government , he argues that the United State's checks-and-balances system of divided government should be replaced with a more efficient, and less democratic, Parliamentary one. To justify his ideas, he argues that “Government is not a machine, but a living thing”, and one that must evolve. In his view, evolution means limiting individual freedom. He states this explicitly: “No doubt, a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forth as fundamental principle.” The notable progressive socialist Jane Addams stated things even more plainly, “[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many.”
But, what to do about the fact that the United States Constitution enshrines individual rights, and more importantly, insures them by providing for a well-armed populace? Well, in light of the modern liberal position on this issue, Woodrow Wilson’s proposed solution to this problem should come as no surprise. While campaigning in 1912, he argued that “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the law of Life…, it must develop.” He continued, “All that progressives [i.e., ‘liberals’] ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” That is, permission to interpret away the individual liberties that the Constitution sought to permanently enshrine. This exact sentiment has been echoed by liberal icon Al Gore, who said a few years ago that the Constitution is "a living and breathing document...that...was intended by our founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people."
But what if the masses would not give the Progressive’s such permission? What if they would not willingly cede their liberties to the government for the greater good? Well, a according to Wilson, a “consummate leader” should not hesitate to employ totalitarian methods to decieve them into doing so. Wilson writes in Leaders of Men:
Only a very gross substance of concrete conception can make any impression the minds of the masses. They must get their ideas very absolutely put, and are much readier to receive a half truth which they can promptly understand than a whole truth which has too many sides to be seen all at once. The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people’s characters, he cares much—everything—for the external uses to which they may be put…. He supplies the power/ others supply only the materials upon which that power operates…. It is the power which dictates, dominates; the materials yield. Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader.
That Wilson was able to get elected President while openly publishing such views is evidence of just how enamored America (indeed the world) was with socialist/progressive/totalitarian ideas at the time.
On a side note, query whether the technique of disseminating “half truths which” the public can “promptly understand” is still a preferred technique of liberals today. Consider, for instance, the half-truth (or at best, unproven one) that increasing levels of CO2 cause global warming, and that mankind’s only hope for salvation lies in ceding ever growing amounts of authority governments in order to combat this threat. Or, consider the half-truths that Bush offered to advance his cause for war in Iraq (yes, but despite popular conception, Bush is a "liberal", as we shall see). Is the truth really so simple? Or, is it possible that the real truth has "too many sides to be seen all at once"?
To summarize, we have seen how yesterday’s liberals advocated the same ideas as today’s conservatives, and vice versa. We have seen how liberalism and conservatism are NOT ideologies or political platforms, but rather are outlooks--the former generally promotes change, the latter generally opposes it. That today's pro-change liberals favor collectivism is a testament to the success of individualism over the last few centuries. Once again, because the views of yesterday's successful liberal radicals always become the status quo of today, yesterday's liberals are today's conservatives, and vice versa.
To conclude with my objective of offering a meaningful lexicon for future discussion, we can divide people generally one of the following four categories:
1) Those who value collective, communal rights over individual ones, and who favor social evolution and modernization. These are today’s socialists/fascists/progressives, but because these labels have so much other baggage, I will refer to these people here in my blog as "Collective Modernists."
2) Those who value collective, communal rights over individual ones, and who fear social evolution and modernization. This group is most famously represented by today’s religious conservatives, regardless of their specific religion. I will call these people "Collective Traditionalists."
3) Those who value individual liberty over collective, communal rights and who favor social evolution. These are today’s “libertarians”, but for clarity I will call them "Individualist Modernists".
4) Those who value individual liberty over collective, communal rights and who fear social evolution. These are the "Individualist Traditionalists."
Today's Democrat party generally falls squarely into Group 1, while the Republicans take turns moving back and forth between Groups 1 and 2. For this reason, most political battles today are, regretably, fought within Group 1, and between Groups 1 and 2. Being of the libertarian persuasion myself, my goal is to contribute, in any way I can, to a resurgence of Group 3, which has unfortantely is under-represented by either of the US's dominant political parties. Libertarians, or "Individualist Modernists" will know that they have been successful in their effort to gain relevance when the political debate shifts from being dominated by issues of modernism versus traditionalism to individualist versus collectivists.
Finally, something that I said earlier bears repeating: Battles within each of these groups are often more viscious and vitriolic than battles between groups. For instance, fanatical religious fundamentalists of all types fall into Group 2 (Collective Traditionalists), but they disagree visciously over how to define the collective, and which rules the collective should enforce. Communists and fascists both fall into Group 1, and their battles are legendary. Because intra-group battles can be so fierce, the temptation is to view the battling groups as political polar opposites when, in fact, they are not. Not even close. Rather, as Goldberg noted, they are simply "two dogs fighting over the same bone." I expect this fact to be important to some of my future posts.