The Western political Left famously began its political existence two hundred twenty years ago in the halls of the French Revolutionary Parliament. It proudly declared itself the Party of Liberty. It is now the Party of State control, Liberty’s ancient enemy. Its founders were men and women of great passion. Its heirs, from Europe to America, are so bloodless one sometimes wonders if they are really androids. Once revolutionary progressives, they are now either reactionary oppressors, or apologists for a stultifying status quo.
The Left turned into its opposite. Instead of withering away, thereby ushering in an era of radical equality, the state grew mightier, and became the instrument of a new class of rulers, largely drawn from the intellectual and legal elites. After some initial discomfort, as in the primal scream of the likes of C. Wright Mills, the Left on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the enterprise, and today are avid participants in the creation of the “soft tyranny” Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about.
As the revolutionary vision evaporated, the Left was reduced to a political party with little more than a desire for power. I think the decisive moment came with the last European war, when the passion that had attended the birth of the European Left burned out, along with that of its evil twin, fascism. Political intensity in the Old World vanished across the spectrum after World War II, which marked the end of the era of revolutionary Europe. It was replaced with the bloodless elitism that is so thoroughly embodied in the European Union. Passionate protest passed briefly to the young, as in France in 1968, but it has remained marginal. Today it is next to impossible to find a European leftist who speaks the old language of liberty. Indeed, insofar as any political figures invoke the old ideals, they are “rightists.”
The American Left has come to this sorry condition more recently. For most of the past two hundred-plus years there were deep, fundamental differences between European and American leftists. The Europeans were more doctrinaire, the Americans more pragmatic. The Euros insisted on translating Marx into political and social parties and unions, the Americans never had a serious socialist labor movement. And the Euros were suckers for Communism in a way the Americans never were. The Euros fell for “state socialism,” while the American Dream inspired most Americans.