Friday, June 03, 2005


Why are Americans who advocate broadly the reverse of what 19th century English liberals advocated still called liberals? The answer given to that is usually in terms of a steady Leftward drift and that explanation has its merits in isolation. But consider another much less well-known but even more striking phenomenon: What American "progressives" believed in the early 20th century. I have already documented what that was at some length elsewhere so I will just summarize here: The Left of American politics from the beginning of the 20th century up to FDR and the "New Deal" were essentially Fascist. They believed in eugenics, in nationalism, in national uniformity, in war as a purifying force, in the inferiority of Jews and blacks etc. Nowadays the American Left rejects all that with apparent horror (though the antisemitism does seem to have roared back with a vengeance recently). So how did THAT huge change in doctrine come about? I think there is a single explanation for both changes. And that explanation is a psychological one. Psychological explanations for conservatism (e.g. Norton & Aughey, 1981; Gilmour, 1978; Feiling, 1953; Kirk, 1993, Scruton, 2002, Standish, 1990) are routine (though Leftist accounts of conservative psychology are amazingly counter-factual) but I think Leftism also has to be explained psychologically.

As I have set out at great length elsewhere, the primary motive for most Leftist activists and intellectuals (though not for most Leftist followers) is to get acclaim for themselves. That is a perfectly normal human motivation but one that is pursued by Leftists more or less to the exclusion of all else. But how do you get acclaim? The surest way by far is to adopt as one's own whatever it is that the population already acclaims and become a great champion of that. If people generally think it is unquestionable that blacks and Jews are inferior and need to be kept down then a Leftist will become a vigorous advocate of keeping blacks and Jews down. And Leftists did just that in the early 20th century. Up until World War II Harvard had an excellent relationship with the Hitler regime, for instance and Hitler in turn took American eugenic policies as a model for his own. But if certain world horrors take place (WWII) which cause people to change their views and see tolerance is a virtue above all else then Leftists will immediately become great preachers of tolerance. And that too has now happened.

And something similar happened in the 19th century. England was at that time enormously influential and powerful so whatever was characteristically English came in for great scrutiny, not the least in England itself. What was it that made England great? And as I have set out at great length elsewhere, the English themselves had for centuries seen their liberties as a great national treasure. English liberty was a byword and its virtue was unquestionable. So again Leftists did the sort of thing that they always do. They became great champions of liberty. They supported laissez faire in business and writers such as J.S. Mill pushed ideas of liberty to just about their logical extreme. Conservatives, of course stuck with the ideas of extensive but not unlimited liberty that had been normal up until that time. That the "liberals" of that time really were just Leftists can perhaps most clearly be seen in the case of Mill himself. As I have set out briefly here and here the actual policies Mill advocated in parliament were often quite socialist and interventionist. If he could get acclaim for himself by advocating various government interventions in people's lives, all his pro-liberty principles suddenly vanished, just as eugenics suddenly vanished from the Leftist vocabulary after Hitler.

So conservatives just plod along with their boring quest for balance and realism (including, as always, liberty up to a point and tolerance up to a point) while Leftists push what are usually good ideas to extremes. Leftists once masqueraded as extremely pro-liberty. They now masquerade as extremely pro-tolerance. But they believe in neither. Their behaviour always gives them away as believing in nothing but their own entitlement to power. Leftists who get virtually unlimited power (Stalin, Mao etc) soon show how much liberty and tolerance they believe in.

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly, 24, 129-133.
Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet.
Kirk, R. (1993) Ten conservative principles. Russell Kirk Center.
Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism. London: Temple Smith
Scruton, R. (2002) A question of temperament. Opinion Journal, Dec. 10th.
Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.


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