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Storm Warning: Are Left and Right Obsolete?

Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Libertarian Forum, The Individualist, and The Journal of Libertarian Studies. He writes a weekly column, "The Old Cause," for Antiwar.com, and is an occasional contributor to Lewrockwell.com.

It has been a long time since the terms "left" and "right" were much help. Nowadays they are outright handicaps to an understanding of political reality. They have undergone constant redefinition almost from the day they were coined. Winnowing sheaves of relevant literature, one finds a few believable attempts at putting content back into these terms, at least for the twentieth century.

From James Burnham, Hans Rogger, and Eugen Weber, for example, we learn that "right" is whatever values the nation positively, rejects egalitarianism, and denies that progress is inevitable. The "left," by contrast, is internationalist, radically egalitarian, and militantly progressive. Further, the left has been the aggressor in the war of ideas, and it fell to the right (as defined by these writers) to undertake "holding actions" not always marked by their brilliance, honesty, or effectiveness (consider the GOP since, say, 1952). In "democratic" countries the right has bravely shouted "a little less, please" to voters more likely to be swayed by promises of more. Between world wars, the fascist movements muddied the definitional waters by combining themes of the right with much of the program of the left.

The model just outlined is perhaps better than nothing; but a construct that throws Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken, Frank Chodorov, Charles DeGaulle, Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler together as the "right" seems rather wrong-headed. Where, for example, does it leave those who believe in legal equality (period), admit the possibility of progress, and regard nations as important realities within which liberty can be realized? Apparently, it leaves them with the fascists, Nazis, and Iron Guardists?a result that tears classical liberalism from the picture and lumps it in with "conservatism," which in turn is just a stepping-stone to fascism. This outcome slights fascism's origins as a "heresy of the left" (to cite Hugh Thomas and A. James Gregor), libels conservatism, and proclaims that we can't "go back" to laissez-faire liberalism. Why not?

There are, of course, even less satisfactory approaches. Aca-demics and journalists use the terms in ways partisan, uninformed, and, often enough, consciously dishonest. The terms are hostage to an opinion-molding left, "left" being defined here (by me) as whatever worships state power, especially when embodied in supra-national empires capable of realizing democratic/bureaucratic social democracy through unending social engineering. It is the Positivist-Deweyite-Menshevik nightmare in seven-league boots, with the body of Leviathan and the head of a social worker (to paraphrase Woody Allen). Much of the civilized Euro-American left had few problems with Soviet socialism as such. They just wanted the Commies to be more open?with wider recruitment of state-subsidized intellectuals and two or more parasitic political parties instead of only one. With the Soviets gone, the world left pins its hopes on the American Empire to stir moral rhetoric and provide financial help and weapons of mass destruction to be used against the remaining "fascists," nationalists, and particularists.

There may be remnants around of other "lefts" made up of people who don't love the empire or its wars. Nonetheless, taking the "practice" of the increasingly empowered left "as premise" (as Ernst Nolte would say), I think the definition I offer here is operationally sound. Humanitarian bombing and boundless intervention overseas may seem novel, but have their precedent in Harry Hopkins's assertion that World War II was fought for "the universal New Deal." Good God.

"Right-wing" movements?using the term as deployed by Dan and Tom and Jim on the evening news?sometimes lust for power, too, but that is hardly our biggest problem right now. Most American rightists?populists, localists, "patriots," libertarians, and the poor rank-and-file "conservatives" led and betrayed by the Stupid Party?wish mostly to be left alone, in possession of their private property and their religious, familial, and cultural traditions. This hardly amounts to fascism or even Francoism. In the present left's now highly successful "antifascist" discourse, however, such modest claims are indeed Nazism revisited, for they stand athwart the necessary destruction of all existing social "practices" and their replacement by new ones which, by empowering the formerly oppressed, will be much nicer. You must take that on faith. Fulfilling this program will necessitate the air-conditioned, touchy-feely police state foreseen by Carl Oglesby around 1969, but doubtless anyone noting the connection is likely to be labeled a neo-Nazi.

The perspective on politics given here owes something to such critics as Lew Rockwell, Paul Gottfried, Samuel Francis, the late Murray Rothbard, and many others. If it is anywhere near the mark, it suggests that the next century's battles will be between social-imperialists and social-militarists in the state apparatuses of the American Empire, the European Union, and their lackeys and footmen, on the one hand, and those who genuinely believe in local self-government, decentralization, markets, and?above all?human freedom, on the other. The fight will be to convince the formless masses in the middle?the much derided lower middles and skilled workers?not to follow the "conservative" sell-outs for whom they have voted for three decades. A professor with whom I studied held that a movement of that wicked lot must end in "fascism." But then he was a devotee of Marxism?and that dog won't hunt. Never did.

A political spectrum that hinged on liberty-and-localism versus statism-and-empire would be a wonderful thing. It might even allow the libertarian localists to rally those dreaded petty bourgeois to the cause of freedom once more. Taking back our freedom would be glorious, of course, and proving the Marxists wrong (for the hundredth time) would be good clean fun.