Editorial – Down with left and right

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
March 21, 1997


DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT LEFT AND RIGHT MEAN ANYMORE? When the USSR broke up, the communists found they were called right wingers, and the free market reformers leftists. Debate degenerated until these labels took a backseat to discussing what the various political interests actually stood for.


Even when we think the difference between left and right is crystal clear, is it really? Most call fascists right wing, but fascism is a form of socialism. Nazi is the German acronym for National Socialist Workers’ Party — socialism applied at a national instead of an international level. Stripped of its reprehensible social policies, fascism is a system of economic organization in which government imposes monopoly control over big industry — utilities, steel, automobile, banking and other sectors it considers important — while allowing competition among shopkeepers and the small suppliers needed to serve the important players.


In the first few decades of this century, fascism was a shining ideal for great artists and industrialists alike, the former out of their fear that the rise of democracy would reduce cultural tastes to a low common denominator, the latter out of the natural tendency of businesses to try to wipe out the competition and establish monopolies. In 1931, General Electric president Gerard Swope, with the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Industrial Conference Board, called for the compulsory cartelization of all major American corporations into federally controlled trade associations for each industry. Central planning would have been carried out by a national economic council of corporate leaders and "responsible" union leaders. General Motors president William Knudsen, after meeting Goering, talked of Germany as "the miracle of the 20th century."


After the Second World War, because fascism had become a dirty word, admirers of the fascist countries’ economic policies — the trains ran on time, there was a chicken in every pot — replaced the term with "mixed economy." Though the fascist countries lost the war, fascist thought had won the battle over economic organization. Today, the fascist economic model still dominates in prosperous nations such as Canada, France and other European countries, where governments control utilities and most large business sectors, and allow relatively unfettered competition among most shopkeepers and small suppliers.


FOR INTELLIGENT DEBATE TO OCCUR, the debaters must talk a common language. It would hardly further public debate for our opposition parties to throw epithets such as "Nazi" and "fascist" at Prime Minister Chrétien, when the original definitions of these words have long been supplanted by other, entirely pejorative non-economic meanings that now imply a basket of evil motivations and social beliefs. America was ill served during the McCarthy era, when "commie" was the label of the day, and anyone who did not toe a strict, anti-communist line was liable to attack. Often, the object of scorn had no communist leanings at all, but was labelled a communist for defending, or refusing to denounce, friends who did. Applying the commie label was cheap and easy and effective. Although the excesses of the McCarthy era are past, similar labelling continues. In the United States, advocates of conservative causes stick the label "liberal" (meaning socialistic) to political candidates that Canadians would consider conservative, and, in Canada, socialists indiscriminately brand those they disagree with as neo-cons. Yet few of these neo-cons answer to that name, and for good reason. Some are free market types and some are interventionists. And some — though Canadian socialists seem oblivious to this — would in most other countries be viewed as mainstream socialists.


AT THE SOCIALIST INTERNATIONAL’S 100TH ANNIVERSARY meeting in Stockholm in 1989, representatives from 80 socialist and social democratic parties around the world officially acknowledged a new economic order in the socialist world: They voted to update socialist principles by rejecting nationalization of industry in favor of market mechanisms. As put by Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of West Germany and the president of the Socialist International, experience had taught socialists everywhere that their previous "strong confidence in the role of the state in the economic process" was an error. New Zealand’s Labour Party under David Lange was the first great socialist privatizer, rescuing that island nation from economic ruin through the most sweeping free market reforms conducted anywhere on the face of this earth. Those reforms would work spectacularly. New Zealand’s economic growth became the highest among the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; its unemployment rate has almost been halved, and its rampant inflation stamped out. As all this was happening, the socialist world took note. Italy’s socialist-led coalition became a privatization leader, as did Spain’s Socialist Workers Party, which has more thoroughly dismantled General Franco’s statist policies than Spain’s previous centrist government. Portugal’s Socialist Party teamed up with the Social Democrats to revise the constitution to allow privatizations. In implementing France’s privatization reforms, Michel Rocard, its socialist prime minister, proudly identified himself as a "free market socialist." Australia’s Labour Party embarked on two series of sweeping privatizations. None of these conversions occurred without great angst; all required great courage.


Last September’s Socialist International Congress at the United Nations took this new socialist thinking further in its Declaration on the World Economy, a forward-going document that embraces free trade and the globalization of the world economy. In rejecting an overbearing economic role for the state, socialists haven’t lost sight of their social ends — like the socialists of old, they still champion traditional causes such as the protection of the environment and the plight of the Third World’s poor. But unlike the old socialist order — which thought social justice required state ownership — mainstream socialism recognizes the superiority of markets over state planning and strives to enlist the elegance of the marketplace to their noble social causes. As put by John Smith, the former British Labour leader, "We believe quite simply that markets must serve people and not the other way around." Adam Smith, another great social reformer and champion of the little guy, could not have said it better.


ACROSS THE ATLANTIC, Canadian socialists are out of the socialist mainstream and out of favor with the public. Fearful of losing their remaining support — particularly that of organized labor — they have turned inward, squabbling among themselves, turning on their allies and losing their purpose in the process.


Canadian socialists try to thwart workers in low wage countries from exporting their wares to us, in contrast to socialists from the rest of the world who, at the Socialist International Congress, declared socialists should "under no circumstances prevent the developing and reforming economies from competing on a comparative cost basis . . . through lower wage costs." Canadian socialists trivialize concerns over budget deficits and inflation, while in the rest of the world, socialists respect fiscal prudence: "Trade through full utilization of the concept of comparative advantage represents the way to significantly improve welfare without jeopardizing progress in the reduction of inflation and budget deficits."


Instead of putting people first by defending modern socialist principles, our socialist leaders cower in the face of change. Their retreat occurred over Ontario Hydro, a utility which overcharged residential customers to provide relief to big business, which was awash in debt yet paying its workers an average of almost $70,000 a year, and which was the country’s worst polluter. To reform Ontario Hydro, newly elected Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae enlisted environmentalist Maurice Strong, an international bureaucrat with a brilliant record at restructuring Crown agencies and an advocate of using free markets to socialist ends.


But the NDP panicked under union opposition, abandoned this privatization and soon drowned in central planning cost-cutting exercises such as the Social Contract. To this day, ironically, many of Rae’s former supporters still hurl invectives his way, placing this central planner somewhere on the right of the ideological scale.


THE CONFUSION OVER LEFT AND RIGHT is a confusion between ends and means. Labor unions and public ownership both arose as forces needed to counter the powers of the industrial monopolists. Over time, socialists forgot that these institutions were only a means to an end, and made them ends in themselves. When better remedies presented themselves — such as simply breaking up the monopolies and establishing strong competition rules to ensure corporate fairness — socialists saw these as attacks on their institutions.


If left and right mean anything anymore, left implies favoring more government regulation over the economy and less over social behavior. The left also has different priorities — the environment, medicare, feminism, workers — than the right, which is more preoccupied with advocacy of traditional family structures and low taxes. But many on the right care about the environment, and many on the left about their tax bill. Most of us have particular views of the various issues of the day. We don’t swallow our ideological packages holus-bolus. While left and right are convenient shorthand to describe narrow issues, these labels are also used indiscriminately to flatten the many dimensions of human behavior and motivation onto a single left-right axis. In so doing, more than public debate is demeaned, people become deaf and then dumb to the real problems that confront us.


To tear down the Tower of Babel garbling civilized discourse, we can start by throwing out confounding labels like left and right and judge parties — and people — by what they actually stand for. We can finish, someday, by throwing out party politics in favor of direct democracy.


Lawrence Solomon



    , Publisher and Editor, From The Right, responds: May 6, 1997

    , Rothesay, New Brunswick, responds: May 16, 1997

    , Editor, The Left Fax, Winnipeg, responds: July 3, 1997



Michael Taube, Publisher and Editor, From The Right, responds: May 6, 1997

Astute readers of politics and current events have been swarmed by a recurring topic — are the political terms "left" and "right" relevant any longer? Strangely, I have found that a majority of people perceive that the lines of the political spectrum are moving closer together rather than further apart. We can now include Lawrence Solomon in this category after his editorial entitled "Down with left and right" (Spring 1997).

Mr. Solomon asked a simple question in the first line of his article, "Does anyone know what left and right mean anymore?" As the individual who runs the publication From The Right, I would like to hope that I do! The divisions of left and right still exist today in our world. In Canada, the lines are simple — Reform and Tories on the right, NDP and the Bloc Québécois on the left, and the Liberals sitting on the fence. All five parties have different roots, platforms, people, and political mechanisms. But in the final evaluation, their places on the political spectrum are set in stone.

As noted by Norberto Bobbio in Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, left and right cannot survive without one another. Politics has to include both left and right, or else ideas could not exist. Bobbio also notes that nothing in the political spectrum can be left and right at the same time. Thus, there is no true centre in politics, as most liberal parties across the world like to profess. Rather, there can be a centre-right or a centre-left. This means that even the most content fence sitter makes choices that are either left or right.

Besides, what is there to admire about being a fence sitter? In Canada, there are five major political parties and over 10 in total. Nobody expects the most biased individual to like every position taken by his or her party of choice. So how can the fence sitter, part of the so-called "radical middle," profess to have no set political position on an issue, a leader, or a party?

That excuse makes sense in a one-party state, but not in a democratic society. What on earth has caused all this difficulty in understanding the terms left and right? I feel there are two important reasons for this. Firstly, there is the acceptance of the free market economy by the left. It has led Jean Chrétien to transform the Liberal party in Canada, Tony Blair to restructure the Labour party in Britain, and Bill Clinton to mildly change the Democratic party in the United States. And, as Mr. Solomon pointed out in his article, many ex-communist, socialist, and social democratic political parties accepted the free market principle at the 100th anniversary meeting of the Socialist International in 1989.

Secondly, there is the growth of conservative realism, an idea discussed by Kenneth Minogue in Conservatism Realism: New Essays In Conservatism, which has been an important influence since the fall of communism, Nazism and other totalitarian theories. Minogue pointed out that modern politics might be dominated by big ideas for government, but it is the conservatives who "take a skeptical and realist view of what big ideas can achieve." Minogue outlined the classical liberal ideas of three British political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, Elie Kedourie, and Shirley Ledwin. All supported the initiatives of the Margaret Thatcher government, fought hard against communism and other types of totalitarian thought, and helped further the modern-day conservative movement. Minogue has seen a bit of conservative realism rub off on Clinton, Blair, the Labour parties in New Zealand and Australia, and even in Canada.

I’m happy that after decades of ignorance, the left has awakened and discovered free market bliss. However, the parties on the left have very different spins on their newfound political identities. This is why we are confused by liberals like Jean Chrétien and socialists like Roy Romanow when they act out of character. Hence, it might be beneficial for the right to follow this motto: Be sure to give the left credit when it deserves it, but beware of its overall message!

This is what I think has confused Mr. Solomon in his essay: the transformation of ex-communist and socialist parties in the economic arena. When you look at the other two arenas — political and social — the old left still exists and thrives. It remains to be seen if the former left-wing parties are being honest, or purely opportunistic. Nothing stops these parties from reverting back to their old policies and ideas. Sure, the case of David Horowitz, the "radical son" who left behind his Marxist past and settled down in the Republican party, is admirable. But this is a rare example of a full transformation in all three arenas.

I agree with Mr. Solomon that the NDP is out of step in the socialist mainstream. Still, I will give it one tiny bit of credit — at least it is honest with itself. I am against everything that the NDP stands for, but at least it is acting like a typical socialist party. This much I can’t say about the left today.

I don’t think that left and right are confounding labels. We all don’t think alike, and it would be a boring world if that were the case! Parties and people will always engage in conversations and elections that are politically motivated. The left-right political spectrum exists not for convenience, but for necessity. We don’t have to come together in some sort of utopian fantasy. We should respect one another for having different beliefs, opinions, and, yes, biases. It is for all of these reasons that left and right will be here for years to come.

Fred Donnelly, Rothesay, New Brunswick, responds: May 16, 1997

I liked your editorial’s many insights, and the thought occurred to me that a parallel argument might be made about the social class of party leaders in either the recent British election or the current Canadian election. The situation no longer reflects the historical expectations we might have of the class origins of politicians. E.g., the Tory John Major has a working-class background while Tony Blair of Labour is from the upscale, affluent middle class, while Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal-Democrat, has the army/farming background long associated with Toryism.


Nick Ternette, Editor, The Left Fax, Winnipeg, responds: July 3, 1997

In response to your editorial "Down with left and right," let me first congratulate you for taking the time to write an editorial that takes issue with the concept of what is right and what is left today. No question, I have also argued that language has lost its meaning and degenerated, taking a backseat. It is interesting to note your comparison of fascism and socialism. If you had more accurately said fascism and Stalinism rather than socialism, I might just have agreed with your views. No doubt, if one really understands history, one must recognize that all political movements (be they conservative, liberal, or socialist) have within their parameters a left and right faction. Yes, fascism (national socialism) had a left-wing faction led by Dr. Goebbels and the SA, which, fortunately or unfortunately, was crushed by Hitler, supported by big business, in 1933 in order to ensure maximum profits for the glory of Germany. On the other hand, all properties were nationalized in the Soviet Union under Stalin, for private property was theft, and the state owned all properties and all the means of production, which created what I call state capitalism. Private properties were maintained under fascism and Hitler. That clearly defined fascism as right wing and Stalinism as left wing, even if one were to agree with you that both fascism and Stalinism are "corporate" in nature.

You raise some significant points in terms of misuse of language. You correctly point out that non-economic terminology seems to define what ideology people have. No question, traditional left-right labelling was based on whether or not one was interventionist (social democratic) or free market (conservative). But that does not take into account those of us who reject markets completely (far left) as well as those rejecting interventionism (anarchism — be they of libertarian or green type).

Right on, Mr. Solomon. Socialist International has fundamentally rejected social democracy and become the new conservatives. Unfortunately, you seem to forget that social democracy has nothing in common with socialism.

Yes, of course, social democrats believe in more government regulation over the economy and less over social behavior. . . . However, the left as defined by socialists, Marxists and greens does not believe in more government intervention, but less — believes as some of the new right does — let people do things for themselves instead of relying on government to do it for them — and sees an alternative to free markets and corporatism (government interventionism), namely communalization.

Lawrence Solomon replies

Mr. Taube states that ideas could not exist without left and right. In fact, these terms are recent inventions — arising in France barely 200 years ago — while ideas, including political ideas, are about as old as civilization. Somehow, people in earlier times managed to disagree.

Mr. Taube’s defence of left and right is an excellent example of the contortions otherwise intelligent people go through in trying to make sense of these crude and often contradictory terms. He speaks of the places of our five parties on the political spectrum as set in stone, but also of "former left- wing parties" and socialist leaders who "act out of character." Himself a skilled fence sitter, Mr. Taube concludes that left and right will be here for years to come. Is that several years, or several hundred years?

In fact, none of Canada’s political parties are ideologically consistent, all are mushy compromises, determining their policies on the basis of the latest polls and pandering to business, union, and other interest groups. In the United States, all five of Canada’s federal parties would be, on Mr. Taube’s political spectrum, to the left of the Democratic party, which under Jimmy Carter, a liberal, brought in the era of deregulation a full two decades ago. Much of the platform of the Reform Party — whether subsidizing rural postal service or vowing to meet "the demands of consumers for safe, secure supplies of energy at competitive prices" — is consistent with the beliefs of the NDP, explaining why these two populist parties vie for the same left-wing — or is it right-wing? — voter.

In the lazy language of left and right, someone on the left tends to be for abortion rights and against property rights, for environmental protection and against deficit reduction, for gun control and against capital punishment. Yet most conservative voters favor abortion rights and in NDP Saskatchewan the overwhelming majority oppose more gun control. Just about everyone, left or right, favors environmental protection and deficit reduction, just about no one would advocate abolishing private property.

Mr. Ternette, in contrast to Mr. Taube, understands the confusion in the terms, pointing out that the extreme left and right meet in anarchy, where the state, to the desire of both, has withered away. But Mr. Ternette seemingly shares with Mr. Taube a myopic world view limited to attacks on, or defences of, socialism. Political discourse — including thoughts on democracy, theocracy, and communism — has a much longer, much richer, and much more relevant past.

In the end, left and right accurately describe no one and nothing, and serve instead as broad brushes with which combatants can unthinkingly smear their opponents instead of objecting to distinct positions they might hold.


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