[sixties-l] The Dark Side of the Left (2 book reviews)

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Aug 11 2000 - 22:02:43 CUT

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    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
    wind blew.

    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
    organizational forms.

    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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