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Where Does the Left vs. Right Fight Come From?

A review of Yuval Levin's The Great Debate.

by
Jon Bishop

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January 31, 2014 - 8:00 am
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We too often assume that the left and right divide began with the eruptions of the ’60s or with the presidency of FDR. It is in fact much older — ancient, even, for it is not out of the question to assume that Greece and Rome faced similar questions. So Yuval Levin, with his The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, has done modern American political discourse an incredible service by reminding us to always consider the historical context.

Levin takes the reader on a guided tour of the Enlightenment-drenched late 18th century and demonstrates how Burke and Paine, who serve as Levin’s representatives for conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism, respectively, adapted the thinking of the age to their approach to political questions. He draws from both their letters and published works — which make for great reading, by the way. Both, after all, were wonderful rhetoricians.

Their two defining moments? The French and American Revolutions. Paine supported both, because he viewed them as serious expressions of Enlightenment liberalism — the crushing of institutions and traditions, the releasing of the individual from various constraints, the basis of all things on reason. As Levin notes, Burke, though he supported the American Revolution, was horrified by the French Revolution, viewing it as a “mortal threat to liberty” (29). He of course believed that good, free regimes were based upon habit, sentiment, and communal association — with the dead, the living, and the yet to be born.

If you are familiar with political philosophy, then neither of their positions will come as a surprise. What I think is most important about Levin’s book is this: he reminds us that the United States is not really heir to a truly conservative tradition. For instance: Burke was a conservative Whig. This is why a strong, objective sense of history is important. As Levin writes:

The revolutionaries who adopted Paine as their own would too often infuse his historical memory with socialist sensibilities that would have been largely foreign to Paine himself. And a great deal of the commentary (and even the scholarship) regarding Burke, particularly over the past century, has seemed to want to make him (even) more temperamentally conservative than he was, in the process overlooking important strains in his thinking (225).

Our nation was founded by a revolution, which, as Levin notes, is why many modern conservatives tend to sound like Paine in denouncing the excesses of the state while triumphing the individual. But they are also quite willing to craft policy that closely resembles the communal, tradition-based conservatism that Burke articulated (228-229).

The questions that so plagued many late 18th century thinkers remain: Was America, like Burke thought, a separation from England, but maintaining a form of its institutions? Or was it, as Paine would imagine, a total break, a completely new, reason-based nation (225)?

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Top Rated Comments   
Too much is made of Burke's correct call on the French Revolution. Paine and Jefferson weren't wrong on their political principles, they were just wrong about the French people. They French just weren't ready to act like civilized Englishmen. George W. Bush made the same mistake about the Iraqi people.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd say the Left-Right paradigm originates from...where it started- the French Assembly, and the sitting of the Jacobins on the Left, and the moderate Girondists on the right. The Jacobins were led by the first real Leftist, Robespierre, who was the disciple of the first real Leftist philosopher- Rousseau. The main idea of Leftist is Romanticism- a fantasy view of the goodness of man, rejecting the Biblical worldview that man is inherently sinful, ignoring 6,00 years of human history and a good look in the mirror. Some secularist conservatives, like David Mamet, call the biblical view, the "pessimistic view." When Rousseau wasn't busy serial-philandering, dumping his newborn children in impoverished orphanages to die rather than caring for them, mooching off gullible elites, and stiffing all his creditors, he pontificated on how innocent, pure, and noble man was- blaming all of man's wanton dementia on society, rather than a sinful nature. Thus, he argued, man did not need to repent of any sins, rather society needed to change, and of course the only agency powerful enough to change society was....*drum roll please*...The State,( ruled by a cadre of elite "enlightened" programmers, of course)! *crash, bam, thud.* Every Leftist from Robespierre to Marx, to Mussolini to Sanger, to Heidegger, Marcuse, Sartre, Alinsky and the effete, sneering pontificators infecting our universities- are all Rousseuans. The correct term for Leftist is "coercive utopians" or "Romanticist Humanists." All the blood shed in the name of "justice" Brotherhood" "the people" "the workers" , ad nauseum, came from Rousseau's ideas, which is the heart of popular thought still today. Something Santayana said comes to mind.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
One thing to add to this discussion is the decline and fall of US cities, the home of US progressives and their political power base. Not all cities but many and it's along a continuum. Once US cities were a model of wealth creation, productivity, and entrepreneurial energy. But as the left began to control cities they curbed much of the wealth production. Enterprises were buried under taxes, regulation, labor laws, and environmental restrictions and manufacturing died. Now many US cities consume more than they produce and are slowly dying. Detroit is only the tip of the iceberg. US progressives have poisoned their own wells.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (40)
All Comments   (40)
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33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
The "left/right" ideological dichotomy - at least as originally expressed in the competing ideologies and events of post-revolutionary France (see Bruce F Moon and Curt A, above) - is not a reliable standard of measure for *contemporary* political discourse.

In one sense, given the mechanisms by which our society is shifted ideologically over time - i.e., through election, media, academia - the traditional "left/right" concept is far too simplistic to be of any use to us, if it ever was.

In a subtler and more socially hazardous sense, however, in order to map them onto the conflicting notions and factions that drive contemporary political "debate", we must actively distort the original meanings of "left" and "right". Although human nature changes little over time, we in the U.S. today are dealing with a very different set of factions and social problems from those faced by the first French Assembly. Ignoring that difference, and attempting to "map" those earlier ideologies onto the conflicting views of today, using the competing philosophies of Paine and Burke (which are largely orthogonal to both), only promotes confusion and obfuscates the true nature of today's issues.

That's a lot of assertions. I'll explain...

Like the labels "liberal" and "conservative", "left" and "right" can mean wildly different things to different people at different times in history, based on a given individual's knowledge of history and their ideological inclinations. Simply put, one can never know that one's intention - e.g., through use of the word "left" - is accurately understood by one's audience.

You can try this yourself: what do these labels mean to you?

Consider the label "right". Contemporary, self-identified "conservatives" generally use this label to refer to an ideology which, at its root, favors individual liberty. Unfortunately, contemporary, self-identified "liberals" see the same label as referring to an ideology that seeks to repress their liberty. That this difference is really a function of differing definitions of "liberty" is moot, because any possibility for synergy via discourse between "liberals" and "conservatives" is obviated by this fundamental difference in the implications of the labels, themselves. This also ought to be a clue that the labels "liberal" and "conservative" are also less than useful.

Mussolini, clearly referencing the ideologies and events surrounding the first French Assembly as they applied to the events of his day, and pursuing his lifelong desire to promote socialism, recognized BOTH "left" and "right" as paths being pursued at that time to achieve socialist utopia. In his doctrine of fascism, he visciously condemned the radical, populist, revolutionary "left" and glorified the orderly, nationalist, authoritarian "right". His thesis stressed that - of the two - the "right" was the preordained path to socialism, and he went so far as to adopt the label "fascism" - i.e., *nationalist* socialism - in order to clearly differentiate his doctrine from communism - i.e., *populist* socialism - of his day.

The critical element that observant students of history will note here is this: BOTH the "left" and the "right" forms of socialism Mussolini discussed in his doctrine led to an Omnipotent State. One was promoted through populist appeals based on "class struggle", the other was based on nationalist appeals used to rationalize militaristic authoritarianism. The end result of both was the same: "Everything within the state (party), nothing outside the state (party), nothing against the state (party)."

Communists and socialists in the U.S. have been leveraging an etymological fallacy based on Mussolini's doctrine (and, to an extent, the Nazis') for decades, in an effort to distance their preferred form of social organization - socialism - from the horrific WWII crimes of the fascists, while they simultaneously airbrush from history the tens of millions murdered by various other socialist regimes (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Che, etc., etc.). That effort has since morphed into promoting overtly socialist - "left-wing" - policy as "superior" to "right-wing" "conservatism" (which is, in most ways, classical liberalism). The former is mindlessly glorified while the latter is relentlessly demonized. The labels, themselves, come to evoke a visceral, emotional response as a result, which short-circuits rational thought to a dangerous degree.

The typical claim one hears is either that (a) socialists can't be "right-wing" or that (b) "right-wing" / conservatives are aligned with the evils and horrors of fascism because - according to the labels Mussolini himself used - fascism was a doctrine based on the "right" (John Scalzi's rather juvenile 2008 screed entitled "Things One Should Not forget" is a wonderful example of this sort of sophistry).

See the problem yet? Words may have meaning. Labels, not so much. And labels (ab)used in ways that assume different meanings over time or in d
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think you could plot that on a Nolan Chart.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sure (within limits). Problem is, people have a hard enough time making themselves understood using a one-dimensional framework. ;-)

The other issue I have with the chart is that it validates the leftist viewpoint (usually labeled "liberal" on the charts I've seen), despite the dependence of that viewpoint on a distinctly immature/incomplete moral construct.

http://bit.ly/DmoX7
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I always read that the Left vs. Right issue came about during the French Revolution when the General Assembly met. Those who opposed the monarchy and the old order sat on the left while those who supported it went to right. At least that is what I remember reading.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find that hard to believe, because the left and right sides of the room actually change depending on where you sat (for example, sitting near the door has a far different perspective than if you sat in the back of the room or near the two walls).

I did read somewhere that, apparently, the Jacobins/Radicals stole the world "left" from the Book of Revelations (specifically the passage where Jesus pretty much transfigured the people on his left side into goats and damned them to Hell) to indicate how far they were willing to go with their goals (specifically, to attack God). Here's the source: http://www.theculturewatch.com/the-french-revolution And the citation: "The Origin of the Left Wing
It was in the French Revolution that the terms 'left wing' and 'right wing' were first coined. Those on the left were the Radicals, who proudly adopted the designation as a symbol of their Revolutionary defiance of Christian tradition which always represented those on the right hand of God as saved, and those on the left as damned. (James Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origin of the Revolutionary Faith.)"
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wow. Great comments. The conflict goes on. What I would like to add was learned from reading Algernon Sidney and Francois Guizot: there are no straight lines in the history of ideas; and from Twain: while history doesn't repeat itself it certainly does rhyme. I think the real conflict today lies not between left and right; these are not even in conversation. And the left, while still very powerful, is totally without any means, other than raw force, of maintaining its supremacy. It is dying as an idea right now. The real fight is between the differing visions on the right.
Sidney states that when a major crisis exists, it is time to re-examine things in terms of the first principles of the society in question. Our American first principles are found in the same place Lincoln found them: in the Declaration of Independence. The Right in this country, at this time, needs to look at the notion that all men are created equal and ask themselves if the form our government has taken represents that idea, or whether our nation is divided between a ruling class and a remainder on the road to serfdom. The Progressive Project has been based almost exclusively on the creation of different classes of people who are to be viewed by the government differently, whether it be based on race, class, sex, political affiliation, profession, government connection, or what have you. Many on the right are happy with certain aspects of this project and see it as their life's work to maintain it. My opinion is that true patriots are now faced with the task of it's complete deconstruction. Criticize as you will. That's my idea and I'm sticking with it.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
" Our American first principles are found in the same place Lincoln found them: in the Declaration of Independence."

Huh?

Uhm... Lincoln's RHETORIC may have paid lip service to the Declaration and the notion of equality, just as any slick-corporate-lawyer-turned-President might be expected to do.

But Lincoln himself pursued a WAR that killed or maimed over one million Americans, to prevent sovereign States from declaring and maintaining their Independence from corrupt, despotic rule that sought to subordinate one class of persons (i.e., the South) to another (i.e., the North).

Think bigger picture.

You're absolutely correct - at least IMHO - about the Progressive Project. And in that way it's exactly the same program used by communists everywhere: populist appeals for class warfare. But the division into social groups with different "gifts" and "needs" isn't a policy aimed at achieving utopia, it's a tactic used to divide-and-conquer an unwitting electorate, aimed at achieving an Omnipotent State.

And unfortunately, we see this same basic mechanism at work with what is now referred to as the so-called "right" at the federal level. Many on the right are happy with certain aspects of the above, not because it fits the ideology of classical liberalism but, rather, because those aspects support appeals to nationalism (subordination of State sovereignty) and order (TSA, DHS, practically every other TLA at the federal level). This is why the TEA Party exists at all.

The policies that result from this program would not have nearly the destructive effect they've had if there was some balance that tangibly countered the ever-expanding power of the federal government. Like Levin's nullification Amendment.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree with your assessment of the progressive project and its reliance on divisiveness. I'd go farther and say it absolute relies on constantly engendering discontent and, even, jealously. Fomenting dislike and distrust is at the bottom of Barack's (verbal) obsession (nothing is genuine with this man) with "income inequality".

I don't agree that "... Many on the right are happy with certain aspects of this project and see it as their life's work to maintain it." I don't know anybody on the so called right (I prefer "in the right") who is invested in the ideas underpinning the modern progressive movement. The people I admire advocate America working to lift all boats, regardless of all those stupid divisions like sex, race, religion, economic circumstances et al. and etc. on which the progressive project relies.

If we have to speak in dichotomies, Codevilla's ruling party (as they see themselves) versus country party makes sense to me, at least it did when I read it a few years ago.

Link:

http://spectator.org/articles/39326/americas-ruling-class-and-perils-revolution
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
It has always amazed me how the progressive project evolved from the upper-middle class instead of from the lower economic class or upper class. The class warfare perpetrated and perpetuated by the progressives seems to have been ( and probably still is ) based on envy and hatred of the very rich whose lifestyle was unobtainable to the upper middle class. By embracing so-called progressivism it gave them an elevation in society as "champions of the underdog" and a self-anointed status as society's "conscience." It also reinforced their "identity with the poor" who for the most part, they fled from as soon as the latter began to move into their neighborhoods.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, the hypocrisy is stunning.

The Left, Hollywood etc. pays lip service, but go ballistic if "the poor" begin to encroach on their turf.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Too much is made of Burke's correct call on the French Revolution. Paine and Jefferson weren't wrong on their political principles, they were just wrong about the French people. They French just weren't ready to act like civilized Englishmen. George W. Bush made the same mistake about the Iraqi people.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd say the Left-Right paradigm originates from...where it started- the French Assembly, and the sitting of the Jacobins on the Left, and the moderate Girondists on the right. The Jacobins were led by the first real Leftist, Robespierre, who was the disciple of the first real Leftist philosopher- Rousseau. The main idea of Leftist is Romanticism- a fantasy view of the goodness of man, rejecting the Biblical worldview that man is inherently sinful, ignoring 6,00 years of human history and a good look in the mirror. Some secularist conservatives, like David Mamet, call the biblical view, the "pessimistic view." When Rousseau wasn't busy serial-philandering, dumping his newborn children in impoverished orphanages to die rather than caring for them, mooching off gullible elites, and stiffing all his creditors, he pontificated on how innocent, pure, and noble man was- blaming all of man's wanton dementia on society, rather than a sinful nature. Thus, he argued, man did not need to repent of any sins, rather society needed to change, and of course the only agency powerful enough to change society was....*drum roll please*...The State,( ruled by a cadre of elite "enlightened" programmers, of course)! *crash, bam, thud.* Every Leftist from Robespierre to Marx, to Mussolini to Sanger, to Heidegger, Marcuse, Sartre, Alinsky and the effete, sneering pontificators infecting our universities- are all Rousseuans. The correct term for Leftist is "coercive utopians" or "Romanticist Humanists." All the blood shed in the name of "justice" Brotherhood" "the people" "the workers" , ad nauseum, came from Rousseau's ideas, which is the heart of popular thought still today. Something Santayana said comes to mind.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I did not see your outstanding post. I wrote something similar and very brief but not as accurate as what you presented. It has been a while since I studied it in detail.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
The division within the U.S. are too deep for reconciliation and the government is too well armed for a revolution to succeed.

What is going to happen is the political balkanization of the U.S. with the population gravitating to state of their political choice. We can see the opening salvo in this formalizing of the political schism with Cuomo and de Blasio declaring that conservatives are not welcome in New York.

What is needed in this reformation of the U.S. is for conservatives to elect a President and Congress that will devolve powers back to the states.

If this is allowed to happen then the various states will sink or swim based on their individual merits.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am very fearful that what you have written may be correct, especially the second statement. Your third statement is not likely to occur while I am still alive but the Good Lord willing, my grandsons will see it.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Better summary's are Sowell's "Conflict of Visions" and "Vision of the Anointed", but even that does find the true roots that go back to Plato and Aristotle.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Also, read Shelby Steele's "White Guilt", one of the finest treatises on race and politics ever written. A masterpiece from a brilliant scholar.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
But still, Plato, Aristotle and those ancient references were outside of the construct of a post-enlightenment industrial world. Sowell correctly spends most of his time on Godwin, Condorcet (some Paine) on the left and mostly in France, and Burke and Adam Smith and the Anglo world on the conservative side in "Conflict" and in a great passage in the anointed describes the Left's aversion to any type of commitment that endures over time.

Any vow, pledge, promise, contract, constitution, religious truth, allegiance or loyalty that having been firm enough to endure the passage of time is a scary red flag to the nuanced beliefs of the left. Patriotism deserves scrutiny, Marriage suspect, Constitutions are flexible and "Living", Popes are not the "protector of the faith" they are only respected if they "listen" to their "followers". Great religion that leads from behind. Families are whatever we want them to be. Parents are wrong. Power to the people only if the Elites lead the dumb masses to the trough of "Correct" Thinking.

Politicians will always claim to know the best place to send the fruits of the people's occupations, but fruitful people know best which politicians should be placed in other occupations.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I second that. Sowell Nailed it with constrained(by reality) and unconstrained visions. The Unconstrained vision is about to collide with constraints -- hold on and prepare accordingly. This train is not coming to a scheduled stop at the next station.

34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...Today’s conservatives are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindidualism, and they generally lack a non radical theory of the liberal society” "

Eh wot ?

The only thing parallel in history to today's American Left are the blood drenched would be micromanaging tyrants of the 20th century...Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Che...who thought it a good idea for you to die in the name of their superior ideas.

You could even throw in a Billy Ayers or two, whose Weatherman reportedly advocated the deaths of 25 million "wrong thinking" Americans.

For the poster child, see Chuck (U) Schumer at last week's Soros Open Society Institute, only Chuck is too much a coward to advocate outright murder and is more into the slow variety of opposing ideas and people.

"...we, like Burke and Paine, are living in a transformative, strange, and radical age"

That's a bit melodramatic for me. From my vantage point, it's a time in which stupidity and ignorance have more credibility in American culture than at any other time I'm personally familiar with, even the 1960's.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
The colonists spent decades insisting that the crown honor the laws of England within the colonies, also. They sought nothing really new much the same as conservatives seek to retain the same laws restated in our own constitutional form. The radical part was the elimination of any form of hereditary or other continuing form of sovereignty. The rest of our new way is still quite the spitting image of the old.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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