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.
The American Left went half way to statism during the New Deal, which rested on the arrogant conviction that smart people were more reliable than free markets and, ultimately, free people. They went the rest of the way after the defeat of Soviet Communism. The failure of the Great Leftist Dream was so manifest, so total, that only the truest believers dared to suggest that the American dream–hard work pays off because ours is a revolutionary society of opportunity–was a mirage, and we needed a governmental hegemon to create and enforce fairness. And even though the Leftists had long since taken effective control over the academy and most of the media, they regularly failed to elect their most reliable leaders. Their statist ideology did not appeal to the American people.
Their ideas were rightly rejected: Marxism and its various offspring had failed. Nobody believed in “from each according to his ability (or work), to each according to his needs.” What was left? The desire for power, legitimized by the conviction that the New Class should make the decisions for the rest of us. They realized that, since their ideology was rejected, the best way–perhaps the only way–to win was to demonize their opponents and run as the Party of Virtue.
The old ideas were replaced with Groucho Marxism: As the great man once put it, “I’ve got principles. And if you don’t like them, I’ve got other principles.” Just vote for us because we’re superior people. We’ll do it better. It is now all about power and control, not about some new version of “socialism.” There is nothing particularly “socialistic” about the ecodoctrines now put forward by the Al Gores and Carol Browners, nor about the Pelosi/Reid health care schemes. To be sure, they call for a “redistribution of wealth,” but, as we have seen with TARP, the wealth is redistributed to political cronies. It is not so much an ideological campaign as the appropriation of wealth and arbitrary power to fund themselves and consolidate their hegemony.
As Tocqueville forecast, liberty gets tied down by an endless network of regulation, and we become enslaved without ever seeing it happen. That is because we get to vote, and console ourselves with the thought that our rulers serve US. Meanwhile, the Left has legislated (or, when that is impossible, simply ordered) the big State, and staffed it with their own.
History is replete with paradoxes, none more anguishing than the perfection of the oppressive State by people claiming to act in the name of liberty.
UPDATE: If you are interested in this subject, do not miss Ron Radosh’s extraordinary blog