It was a long night for everyone
The moon yields to a sober sun
And her virgin light
Can’t unsee the things I saw
Fallen devils, false gods
In the violet light
Was it always this magnificent?
‘Cause it feels so different
In the morning light
Wasn’t ready for what I’d find
Whatever it is has turned the knife
It was a long, long night
— Guster, “Long Night“
In the past, people would head to the exits saying, ‘Better the centre right than the far left.’ Now they can say ‘better the centre right than the far right’. The shift of left-wing thought towards movements it would once have denounced as racist, imperialist and fascistic has been building for years. I come from a left-wing family, marched against Margaret Thatcher and was one of the first journalists to denounce New Labour’s embrace of corporate capitalism — and I don’t regret any of it. But slowly, too slowly I am ashamed to say, I began to notice that left-wing politics had turned rancid.
…In the years since What’s Left was published, I have argued that the likes of Corbyn do not represent the true left; that there are other worthier traditions opposed to oppression whether the oppressors are pro-western or anti-western. I can’t be bothered any more. Cries of ‘I’m the real left!’, ‘No I’m the real left!’ are always silly. And in any case, there is no doubt which ‘real left’ has won.
Encompassing all those thinkers under the umbrella of the New Left is inevitably limiting and doesn’t capture all the nuances of their thoughts. Some are Marxists, others Structuralists or Keynesians, still others sui generis. But they have many features in common, the first being that they represent everything that a conservative like Scruton dislikes. They have inherited from the Old Left an enduring quest for liberty and equality, without any acceptance of the possible contradictions between them. They interpret all institutions as features of domination and oppression, and their purpose is always to change everything. They see the state as the main instrument for the new order “that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed”. For them, politics is everything while civil society or the rule of law doesn’t interest them much. They are utterly negative: they are often filled with resentment.
…It explains also why the New Left still manages to attract people despite the lessons of experience. It is because its ideal is not supposed to be realised: it is here to be dreamed about, and so never to be questioned. These thinkers will never describe anything practical that they wish to achieve.
…I don’t see how the New Left faithful can answer all the arguments deployed in these pages. But they are rarely asked to defend any of their views, as their prose has often been taken for granted, at least in the intellectual arena. Conservatives are always asked to justify their conception of life, to defend what already exists. The Left is rarely asked to do so, even though it wants to disrupt many things — including things that are cherished by ordinary people. Scruton has struggled with this paradox his whole life, but it is also what gives his work its exceptional character: he argues when others have left the battlefield or don’t see the point of entering it. To argue, he has to engage with the texts of his opponents, and to recognise where he agrees and disagrees with them. He argues in favour of conservative answers to the claims of the New Left, and not everyone will agree. But at least he has read his opponents, and I don’t think the contrary is true.
Ever since I read Russell Jacoby’s book The End of Utopia a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the ontology of leftism. What’s it all about? How has it changed over the centuries? What does it actually mean to call yourself a liberal or leftist anymore?
As always, the answer is, “It depends.” I think there are certain bedrock positions that can be identified, but that’s not the sort of discussion suited for this environment. At any rate, from my perspective as an American in the early 21st century, the distinctions are now more cultural than political. Most partisans are uninterested in logical quibbles over the finer points of philosophy; they’re only concerned with signaling their membership in the tribe of right-thinking people. But as Cohen remarked in a different piece, it’s simply untrue that you can differentiate between the righteous and the wicked based on their positions in the culture wars. Many conservatives are good, reasonable people. Many liberals and leftists are dogmatic fanatics. Both sides have been right and wrong about major issues. Political philosophy doesn’t translate neatly into modern-day partisan politics in a two-party system. People are complex; t’was always thus. If these truisms sound odd to you, it’s only because you’ve spent too long locked inside your media silo.
The thing is, to see the truth of what people like Cohen and Bonart/Scruton are saying here, it’s not necessary to monogamously embrace something called “conservatism”; it’s enough to simply get over what Christina Hoff Sommers accurately called “the liberal fear of looking conservative”. Of all the counterfeit pieces of intellectual currency being passed around online, one of the most common is the idea that liberals, throughout history, have always been in favor of whatever is good and beneficial, and conservatives have uniformly resisted changing anything, no matter how obviously broken or corrupt it is. If you don’t agree with us as to the nature and severity of this problem, if you aren’t willing to give us a blank check to “fix” it as we see fit, and if you are starting to suspect that we’ll never be content with anything less than an unreal perfection, well, you must be one of them. Like a lot of people, I’ve merely encountered this fanatical attitude often enough to immunize me against its manipulative tactics.