Subject(s): DARK Side of the Left, The (Book)
Source: Society, Jul/Aug, Vol. 36 Issue 5, p94, 3p
Author(s): Hazlett, Andrew; Schaeffer, Robert K.
The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America
By Richard J. Ellis. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
Reviewed by Andrew Hazlett
>From the turbulent Sixties to today's campus thought monitors, there is
ample evidence in living memory that the Right has no monopoly on political
violence and dogmatism. The Left's excesses, however, are usually
characterized as departures from an otherwise benevolent creed, while
militia bombings are somehow less surprising. But what if there is a dark
heart within American egalitarianism?
That's the question posed in Richard J. Ellis' The Dark Side of the Left. A
professor at Willamette University and a long-time student of American
political ideologies, Mr. Ellis has identified and dissected several
egalitarian movements that have exhibited what he terms "illiberal"
tendencies: unreasoning dogmatism, disdain for individual autonomy,
demonization of opponents, apocalyptic millenialism, and violent rhetoric.
Mr. Ellis finds a common thread that runs through nineteenth-century utopian
collectivists, 1960s campus rebels, today's radical feminists, and
environmentalist misanthropes. Intrinsic to all these forms of
egalitarianism is the rejection of the classical liberal understanding of
equality before the law. Instead, radical egalitarians seek de facto
equality of wealth, of status, of gender, among species, etc. These goals
come into conflict with the existing rule of law in the United States
(especially property rights) and the preferences of the vast majority of
ordinary people. Mainstream American culture is essentially individualistic
and focused on attaining private happiness and prosperity.
In contrast, radical egalitarians' objectives are social. In most cases,
they choose not to withdraw into utopian communities and leave others alone.
They feel compelled to change every aspect of the world they regard as so
deeply corrupt. As their inevitable frustration with the task grows, these
movements often eschew the gradual process of persuasion. They come to
disdain people outside their movement as helpless victims of "false
consciousness" whose choices have been conditioned by the "system." Their
alienation is increased by a belief in an imminent apocalypse--whether
religious, environmental, political, or social. The battle becomes so urgent
and the odds so desperate that other moral concerns are cast aside--people
must be "forced to be free."
Because egalitarians' actions are ultimately in the name of others, the last
inhibitions against coercion and violence fall away. In a way that no person
simply pursuing his own happiness could, the radical egalitarians feel
justified in the advocacy and use of coercive tactics on a wide scale. Mr.
Ellis reports, "those who claimed to act in the name of mankind, or the
earth, or the children, or the future, or equality, could be more
self-righteous and fanatical than those who freely admitted to acting out of
The results can be chilling. As Mr. Ellis writes, "to make altruism ... the
motive responsible for running the system may be an idle dream, but more
troubling is that it invites unchecked state coercion." Edward Bellamy's
1888 book, Looking Backward, called for an omnipotent state to eradicate
individualism and mold humanity into a harmonious collective. The New Left
invoked Frantz Fanon and Herbert Marcuse in the advocacy of riots and the
defense of communist dictatorships. Because the "personal is political,"
radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon would criminalize the most
private consensual activities. Environmental egalitarians like Earth First!
welcome plagues and famine and offer tacit support of sabotage and
Mr. Ellis does not blithely link egalitarianism and illiberalism in these
many instances without detailed evidence. Based on meticulous primary
research, his conclusions are carefully qualified and the book is
exhaustively footnoted (there are half as many pages of notes as text). He
is also anxious to avoid being called a conservative, and he deserves to be
taken seriously in that regard.
What Mr. Ellis upholds instead is what he calls a "liberalism of fear" that
shies away from moral absolutism and "radical certainty." He agrees with
E.E. Schattschneider that "democracy is a political system for those people
who are not too sure they are right." This viewpoint is a weakness
throughout the book because it undermines the moral confidence we need to
combat the very evils he describes. Several of the book's case studies
dramatize what happens when reasonable, well-intentioned people are fearful
and vacillating: those who are not so benevolent but are sure of themselves
quickly seize the reins. On a broader scale, history is full of weak liberal
governments that gave way to highly motivated totalitarians. If anyone is
going to be confident about their political vision, let's hope it is the
defenders of individual rights and capitalism.
This book is most valuable as a reminder that real sins of the illiberals
are the denigration of individuals as such and, as a shortcut to power, the
casting aside of rational persuasion. What we need is more certainty and
greater moral confidence in the service of the nation's founding ideas and
institutions. They protect us from authoritarians of any stripe who would
impose their will by force.
- --Andrew Hazlett
Liberals have fallen on hard times. After decades of sitting comfortably at
the center of a wide political consensus, with their hand on the levers of
state power, they have been exiled to the political margins and their ideas
have been ridiculed by conservatives of the ascendant Right. Given this turn
of events, it may be appropriate to ask of liberals, as Bob Dylan once did:
"How does it feel? To be without a home? With no direction home? Like a
complete unknown? Like a rolling stone?"
This predicament is not unfamiliar to many Americans, though it is no doubt
a new experience for many liberals. The problem for liberals, as it is for
all political minorities, is this: what kind of ideas and practices might
give them a "direction home," a path to public consensus and political
One answer might be for liberals to seek common ground with those on the
Left. But Richard Ellis will have none of that. According to Ellis, the Left
is intolerant, doctrinaire, authoritarian, Manichaean, condescending, and
enthusiastic about violence. Because the Left has this "dark side," it is an
unsuitable ally for liberals. So for Ellis, liberals should best find their
way home, alone.
It is not clear, however, that liberals can create a movement capable of
challenging the Right and returning to power on their own. This does not
particularly trouble Ellis, who is intent on scrutinizing the Left, exposing
its dark side, and demonstrating its weakness as a potential ally.
To do this, Ellis surveys the radical egalitarian tradition in America,
examining abolitionists, communal utopians, the New Left, the women's
movement, and environmentalists during the last 150 years. These diverse
groups were all committed to egalitarian principles. But according to Ellis,
they all made a common set of intellectual and practical errors that
compromised their principles and vitiated their effectiveness.
It is evident from his account that people in these movements made
theoretical errors and political mistakes, which they did not recognize or
appreciate. And Ellis provides a useful service in bringing this to our
attention. But his narrative suffers from many of the errors he criticizes,
and others besides.
Ellis devotes most of his attention to a study of the New Left, the women's
movement, and the environmental movement. This is appropriate, given their
relevance to contemporary politics. But why then devote a chapter to
antebellum abolitionists, and two more to a study of the novelists Edward
Bellamy, Ignatius Donnelly, and Mike Gold? Their inclusion suggests that
Ellis is unable to distinguish between intellectual traditions in different
historical periods or between significant social movements and historical
When Ellis finally turns to contemporary subjects, he concentrates on a few
individuals or groups: Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS); Catharine MacKinnon and women's studies programs; Dave Foreman and
Earth First! His intellectual history of these figures and groups is not
without interest. But he casually equates these individuals with the New
Left movement at large, arguing that these figures represent a wider
intellectual consensus and that their errors are inscribed on the movement
as a whole. This is an extremely dubious assertion. Hayden, for example, has
been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars of the New Left, and for
good reason. He is a prolific writer, an articulate speaker, and, no doubt,
influential in some circles. But what was the relation between his ideas and
the movement at large? Were they swallowed wholesale? These are questions
that Ellis does not entertain. One could argue that Hayden, in fact, had
only a minimal impact on a diverse, multifaceted movement that extended far
beyond the organizational confines of SDS and included people from hippies
to students to Black Panthers to Maoists. The fact is that few of Hayden's
contemporaries read anything he wrote or heard anything he said. The
movement took more intellectual direction from Bob Dylan than it ever did
from Hayden, just ask the Weathermen, who believed they knew which way the
The trouble for Ellis is that if he acknowledged Dylan's role in the New
Left's intellectual life, he couldn't easily use Hayden as its intellectual
representative. It is okay to study what social scientists call an
"unrepresentative sample," because there is much to be learned from it. And
there is something to be gained from Ellis's study of Hayden. But it is
unfair to use criticism of an individual's ideas to characterize a movement,
particularly when that movement has wide-ranging ideas and takes diverse
This problem recurs when Ellis examines the women's and environmental
movements, both having ideas and politics that range across a wide political
spectrum. Frankly, I tire of critiques that use Earth First! to make their
case. It's too easy given the fact that Earth First! is a name without any
organization or members. It's like using a study of a chat room to
generalize about the Internet. His discussion of women's studies programs is
equally disingenuous. He characterizes them collectively as intolerant
despite the fact that the 600-plus programs are extremely diverse. And why
lambaste women's studies? The average university economics department is
less tolerant of dissenting views than even the most strident feminist
Ellis also lays intellectual traps for his subjects. Either they "idealize
the oppressed," a serious error, or they "disdain the masses," an equally
serious fault. Under these circumstances, of course, the Left can do no
right, only different wrongs.
More useful is Ellis's critique of the Left's organizational practices. He
argues persuasively that consensus decision making and efforts to dismantle
or unstructure movement organizations can make participation less democratic
rather than more. But while this has frequently occurred, it does not mean
that consensus decision making and participatory democracy are inherently
flawed, a case he tries to make. The Quakers, for example, have long
practiced an effective politics in the peace movement using this approach.
And so did Charter 77 and Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia under communist
rule. One should note, of course, that the "anti-politics" adopted by
liberal Czech dissidents was extremely effective under authoritarian rule
but unsuited to party politics in the post-communist state. A more
comprehensive analysis of these practices is necessary before they are
discarded as always and inevitably flawed.
Although Ellis's negative assessment of Left movements is unwarranted, his
general aversion to intolerance and self-righteousness, in its many forms,
where it does occur, is sound. He might be surprised to learn that most
people on the Left share his sentiments. But what kind of ideas and
practices does he affirm? Ellis says he is particularly attracted to Judith
Shklar's "liberalism of fear," a liberalism ... that affirms the rule of
law, constitutionalism, toleration, and personal freedom, but jettisons
naive and untenable assumptions about ineluctable progress and natural human
goodness, preferring "a strongly developed historical memory" to abstract or
formalistic efforts to deduce universally shared liberal principles. It is a
liberalism that fears the state, believing that although "the sources of
social oppression are indeed numerous, none has the deadly effect of those
who, as the agents of the modern state, have acquired resources of physical
might and persuasion at their disposal" (p. xi).
There is much to recommend about such a perspective. Certainly many on the
Left, in the women's, peace, and environmental movements, would share these
views. And one can imagine that these principles might serve as the basis
for an engaging conversation between liberals and leftists. Ellis raises
this prospect in the introduction, but then squanders the opportunity for
conversation because he assumes that the Left does not sufficiently fear the
state. But based on my experience in the peace and environmental movements,
I would say he greatly underestimates the Left's skepticism, aversion, even
"fear" of the state. Indeed, it may be that he fears it too little.
Throughout the text he denounces leftists when they engage in "illegal
acts," and he insists that reform take place legally, only within the
confines of representative democratic systems. But committing illegal
acts--strikes, sit-ins, and marches--have frequently contributed to
constructive change, so long as the actors did so peacefully and took
responsibility for their actions. And given the fact that representative
democracy is sometimes used by the majority to marginalize, exclude, and
silence political minorities, there are real grounds for fearing the state,
even a liberal one. This being the case, greater attention might be paid to
reform of the political system itself.
Liberals and leftists have more in common than Ellis suggests. For different
reasons, however, they distrust each other and that distrust has driven a
wedge between them. Ellis might have spent less time hammering away at
differences and more time building on common ideas and shared practices.
That, I think, is the only way home.
- --Robert K. Schaeffer
Reviewed by Andrew Hazlett and Robert K. Schaeffer
Andrew Hazlett is director of the book program at the Manhattan Institute
for Policy Research. He is at work on a book about the politics of race and
violence on a college campus
Robert K. Schaeffer is associate professor of sociology at San Jose State
University. He worked for many years as an editor at Greenpeace, Nuclear
Times, and Friends of the Earth. He is the author of Warpaths: The Politics
of Partition; Power to the People: Democratization Around the World; and
Understanding Globalization: The Social Consequences of Political, Economic,
and Environmental Change.
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