Use It - Or Lose It !!
| 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 Hitlers 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 Hitlers political party -- generally abbreviated as
"Nazi" -- says it all: The National Socialist
German Workers 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
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 Leftists claimed
ideal and government action is the way he proposes to bring
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, mustnt 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 Leftists
as a Solution
One hardly needs to give examples of government inability
to solve problems but, if an example is needed, the way
Argentinas 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 Perons
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 dont 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 Brands (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 Britains
repeal of the corn laws) but only recently do Leftists seem
to have discovered its "evils". Prince Albert,
19th century humanitarian and consort of Britains 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
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 Blakes "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
The Making of a
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 Leftists 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
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
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 didnt look when they said, "Mummy, look
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 Lomborgs 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
Leftists 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 Leftists
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 worlds 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
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 "Dont 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
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
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
The Leftist may still be young and unaware of most of
lifes 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
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
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).
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.
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 heavens 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.
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, Prussias "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.
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
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 Russias new power structure
were allowed. Stalin murdered millions without a qualm to
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 Gorbachevs
"perestroika" (reconstruction). "Perestroika"
implies change so change was in fact the poison that finally
destroyed Lenins 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 worlds 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 Leftists 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. Maos
"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 Leftists 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
Leftists 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.