The modern left is in a sorry state. With various shades of right-wing populism on the cusp of major political breakthroughs in Europe and North America, the question surely turns to the essential viability of certain left-wing ideas. In the first article of this series I examined one fundamental problem with the modern left, namely, it’s inability adequately to account for the existence of human evil and the destructive assumptions about the nature of man which arise from this. In this second article, I hope to deal with another wrongheaded belief of the left: their inadequate conception of freedom.
The Speech of Solzhenitsyn
For over fifty years the forces of leftist thought have essentially conquered all before them. The ‘Overton Window’ of public opinion, at least among the classes that hold sway in the West, has swung ever further leftward. However, in 1991 the USSR came to an unexpectedly swift end and in the following months and years many commentators announced an end to the decades-old conflict of left and right. But that was an illusion, because the Cold War had been far more nuanced than a simple binary of Capitalist-right vs. Communist-left. Even as the US strove against the power of the USSR, the Marxist thought which underpinned the Communist ideology flowed slowly but irresistibly into the leading institutions of the American state. Even as the Americans defeated the Soviets materially, they themselves were undone spiritually and intellectually. Just as the victory of liberal capitalism was declared and Francis Fukuyama announced ‘the end of history’, the seeds of a greater defeat that had long lain dormant, began quickly to grow.
It took a Russian émigré to alert the cossetted children of this august republic to the danger lurking in their midst, a danger that would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was just such a man, the brave author whose work gained him praise in the West and imprisonment in his native land. He had finally been expelled by the Soviets after they discovered the manuscript of his latest book, the now-famous ‘Gulag Archipelago’ and was welcomed into the West with open arms as an ally in the struggle against the global Communist threat. In 1978, having lived amidst the great prosperity and material contentedness of the West for four years, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give the Commencement Address at Harvard University. As he stood before the crowd on that rainy day in June, he must have marvelled at their happy innocence, they who were untouched by the ravages of a totalitarian ideology, they who had never known the hand of war, nor the mad butchery of a plundering foe, a people whose civilisation, young as it was, remained secure from brutal destruction. But his beloved Russia had known these things; when all the horror of an atheist utopia came crashing down on an ancient people and tore them by the roots from their native inheritance and their native humanity. For their part, the crowd perhaps expected a dose of unalloyed praise from a fellow traveller, a man whom their nation had been good enough to harbour. They may have expected him to praise the superior virtues of the capitalist West and denounce the crimes of Communism but Solzhenitsyn did not give them what they wanted, he gave them what they needed. He spoke to them bluntly, like the preaching of the Desert Fathers of old, with words that came from a sense of duty and of love. Instead of mere platitudes he furnished his audience with something far more valuable: a warning, a prophecy of coming calamity. Like a dark cloud on the edge of a summers day he gave them a sense of foreboding, perhaps even a touch of dread.
He began stridently and continued in the same vein:
“…the defence of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenceless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defence against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
“However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice…”
It is enough to say that many people in the crowd booed their guest and his words of warning. They had not been expecting this exotic intellectual to say anything more difficult than ‘everything you believe is right and proper’. But the bearded Russian was heedless of their discomfort and continued, with shocking precision, to shake the foundations of their smug security. As Solzhenitsyn went on to point out, the origins of left-wing thought on the nature of freedom lie in the spirit and beliefs of Renaissance humanism which reverenced the ability of Man (always with a capital ‘M’) to redefine himself and surpass the limits which nature had set him. However, even the humanism of the Renaissance only moved gradually away from the absolute and overarching obedience to God of the first fifteen-hundred years of Christianity, for it was still essentially religious in character. Indeed, one of the great humanist intellectuals, St. Thomas More, died a Martyr of England, serving the heavenly over the earthly power. But the Godly humanism of the Renaissance gave way to its more fundamentalist strain and throughout the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, the purely legalistic and rational variety of humanism emerged triumphant. During the Enlightenment, the ideas of deified human agency and the supremacy of the rational will were crystallised into an anti-theistic dogma which prescribed unlimited human freedom as the cure for all man’s ills. By throwing off the yoke of authority and tradition, man might reach a higher plane of existence and finally transcend the cruelty and brutality of former centuries. In some ways, this was a noble aim, yet it’s primary vision was founded on nothing; it was a castle built in the air, for it took no account of human fallibility and the consequential necessity of constraints on liberty. Therefore, the humanism of the Enlightenment could only really end in a decline into severe individualism, moral relativism and the appearance of a cruelty and barbarity previously unimaginable. In his speech, Solzhenitsyn plotted the trajectory of this decline in spiritual-intellectual vision: humanism fell prey to liberalism, which in turn gave way to radicalism and finally socialism/Communism and the ensuing slaughter of the 20th Century.
For Solzhenitsyn, then, the danger to his audience lay not in the distant Communist East but right here, in the West. It was a danger wrapped up in the assumptions and half-learned philosophies that the inhabitants of the West had imbibed from every soap opera, every advert, every thrilling book they had ever seen and read. It was a ideology contained in all the shallow products of a civilisation that longed to transgress the moral boundaries of its founders. This tendency to view freedom as an end in itself and to simplistically assume freedom is the same thing as happiness, has never been shaken off by the left. One can see this in the hyper-individualism of our present age, the legalistic understanding of a culture of rights – rights shorn of any thought of continuous community and without any defined connexion with responsibilities towards others. As mentioned in the previous article, this ‘war of rights’ within Western societies cannot long continue. History teaches those with eyes to see that any civilisation wracked with internal contradictions and partisan conflict is a civilisation which is not healthy and which, barring any dramatic intervention to arrest it’s decline, will soon be an ex-civilisation.
The Freedom of the Left
The question then is, where exactly has the modern left gone wrong in its conception of freedom? To start with, the left’s conception of freedom compasses two spheres: on the one hand, there is the freedom of the individual in the moral sphere and on the other is the freedom of the individual in the political sphere. It is a hazy demarcation, since morality has very much to do with politics, but the left essentially believes in a negative conception of freedom; the freedom to do whatever one wants providing it is within the letter of the law. It accepts no moral restraints and leaves the burden of defining rights and responsibilities to the legalists. This impoverished conception of freedom does not, in fact, give rise to a greater autonomy, quite the reverse. At once take away the traditional morality and authority of a society and one does suffer immediate anarchy, but this is temporary. Order is re-established but it is never the blissful autonomy the leftist had imagined, it is rather a tyrannical, genocidal, all-encompassing state. As GK Chesterton wrote: “Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.” Man is then at the whim and mercy of a merely relativistic moral code, cast adrift in a world without absolute morality, without freedom limited by some transcendent authority. If the book of the law is merely a human book, any madman may write a chapter.
Despite the catastrophes of the 20th Century, the gulags and the concentration camps, the mass starvation in Maoist China and all the endless crimes of the Enlightenment’s children, the modern left has inherited this failed model of the ‘free man’. It is not at all certain that such things cannot happen again, for the seeds of these totalitarian movements are already sown in our universities and schools. Free speech is under assault from the very movement which at first defended it. The left which cried ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’ under the old anti-Communist regimes, are now intent on imposing their own orthodoxy. Certain words may not be used, others are required. This has the effect of suffocating political discourse and atrophying the very mechanism by which a democracy functions. The control of language and the consequent censorship of thought which it implies, is merely the first step in the rise of any authoritarian ideology. If you seize control of the way in which reality is described, then you control that reality. Demand a man be called a woman and lo! it is accomplished. If the state says two and two makes five who am I to dispute it?
Next stop: Police State?
Now we return neatly to the nature of the creature ‘man’. If man tended always to the good, if his rational will was always ordered to the good of him and his society, he could be trusted with freedom from constraint. However, the lesson of history, even the lesson of our very selves, our faults, foibles and failings, tells us this is not the case. We are capable of good, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking we could not do the terrible things we read about in the papers. Man is fallible and this lends itself to a restricting of his freedom, both for his society’s health and for his own. The pre-Enlightenment conception of freedom was quite different. The Church Fathers and their intellectual forebears in the pagan world believed that freedom was an exercise in seeking virtue. St. Augustine and the other great thinkers of early Christianity insisted that because man is fallible his freedom can only ever be conditional, for unconditional freedom, that is freedom free from restraint, can only lead to destruction. Therefore, the greatest freedom a man can know is the freedom to do good. In a world that tends towards evil, the greatest sign of a man’s freedom, the greatest sign of his rebellious vitality, is not only his refusal to participate in evil works, but in positively fighting and striving to do good. It becomes obvious therefore that the walls which encompass man’s freedom are not so much the walls of a prison as they are the walls of a playground. The game of football assumes the existence of a set of rules, rules that allow a good game to be played – this is not a cold legalism that restrains the energy of the players, but the very order which allows them to play at all.
The freedom to do anything one pleases, the sort of freedom often espoused by those on the left, results in anarchy. It results in an anarchy which invites a reaction opposite to its intention, a force of iron order. The anarchy loosed by the children of the 1960’s cultural revolutions has been met with the rise of such people as Donald Trump, a mild and moderate man as populists go. The danger now lies in the fact that the modern left seems unwilling to relinquish its destructive beliefs and activities, displaying a recalcitrance which may result in a reaction that no one can control. As Solzhenitsyn once said “the battle line between Good and Evil runs through the heart of every man.” Let us hope that this ‘battle line’ remains a metaphor.