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   Wrong Turnings

   How the Left Got Lost




Published in January 2018 by University of Chicago Press 

"While this is a book that should hold the interest of the most ardent scholar, this is also a very good read for the more casual armchair historian or political economist. The research is very thorough and the writing is accessible and impassioned." - Gary Moreau

"In a time of global political and moral flux, this book is a very useful navigational aid. I found it to be almost unique in being a 'socio-political page-turner'." - Eric Turner





1.  Progressive Radicalism before the Left

2.  The French Revolution and the Original Left

3.  Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man

4.  Socialism’s Wrong Responses to the Right Problems

5.  Marxism’s Wrong Turnings: Class War and Wholesale Collectivization

6.  Down the Slippery Slope to Totalitarianism

7.  Keeping Left: In Defence of Democracy and Individual Rights

8.  After Vietnam: The Left Descends into Cultural Relativism

9.  Final Full Turn: The Left Condones Reactionary Religion

10. Two Open Letters to Friends

11. Capitalism and Beyond: Toward a New Old Left


  What this book is about

Everywhere, the Left is in deep crisis. Despite global economic turbulence, the Left often concentrates on slogans rather than practical solutions. Some Left parties have acquiesced with austerity and welfare cuts, and lost much of their distinctive identity. Others have embraced Left populism, offering seemingly simple solutions – such as public ownership and ‘democratic control’ – to complex politico-economic problems.

This book explores some of the historical roots of the Left’s malaise. In major part it is a matter of lost and mistaken identity. It is shown that the very meaning of ‘Left’ has shifted radically from its origins in the French Revolution. Today, the term Left is associated with state intervention and public ownership, which is remote from its meaning in 1789.

We are not obliged to follow the doctrines of the original Left, but it is important to understand how strains of Left thinking have twisted and turned from their original source. This book argues that the Left must rediscover its roots in the Enlightenment, and re-adopt vital Enlightenment values that it has abandoned. It explores alternative ways forward. But to do this it is vital to counter woolly concepts and bad habits of thinking that prevent creative engagement.

In particular, on the big debate concerning public versus private ownership of enterprises, it is very much a question of what works, in regard to economic performance and the preservation of human rights (including liberty, sociality, autonomy and development). While such a pragmatic evaluation is unavoidably framed by ideology, it is not ideologically axiomatic in the sense of starting from the presupposition that private or public ownership (or some specified mix of the two) is superior. Instead, it is a matter of learning from experience and experiment, with respect to human rights as well as economic performance.

Each chapter in outline

Chapter one concentrates on European ideas in the period from 1381 to 1789, noting that many early revolts appealed to religion for justification. Some called for communal ownership, but typically on a small scale. Contrary to a widespread misinterpretation, the English Levellers of the 1640s defended private property. They saw the legitimacy of government as grounded on the will of the people. Previously, the Reformation in Europe had led to rival claims of possible religious legitimation of authority. There were Catholics and multiple Protestant groups, each with its own religious legitimation of political power. Facing and rebutting these rival claims, radicals were impelled to call for religious toleration and a secular state. This secular trajectory, combined with the growth of science, formed the background for the Enlightenment, which argued for the supremacy of reason over superstition.

Chapter two explains how the original terms Left and Right emerged in the French Revolution in 1789-1792. The Left and Right were divided primarily on the question of the legitimate source of authority for government, and secondly on the question of universal and equal human rights. The Right defended religion and aristocratic birth as sources of authority. The Left rejected these, and sought somehow to root authority in the will of the people. The Left leaders of the French Revolution advocated an individualistic, property-owning, market economy, just as the English Levellers had done in the 1640s and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s. This chapter also contests the Marxist notion that 1789 was a ‘bourgeois revolution’. It was not primarily a victory of capitalists over feudal aristocrats.

Chapter three is devoted to the contribution of Thomas Paine, who developed an alternative way forward for the Left. He has been wrongly described as a socialist. His innovative arguments for a guaranteed income and for a redistribution of wealth are shown to be highly relevant for today’s capitalist economies. Paine charted a different route for the Left, which was quickly but regrettably eclipsed by socialism and collectivism.

Chapter four examines three early ‘utopian socialists’, namely Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, François Marie Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Each attempted to justify their planned society on the basis of some version of science. But their schemes were inflexible and they all abandoned some Enlightenment principles concerning democracy and universal human rights.

Chapter five is the first of two chapters on Marxism. It critically examines the Marxist notion of class struggle, with its elevation of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’. It argues that the Marxist depiction of class as the most basic social unit is incoherent, because the definition of class itself depends on prior legal relations. The chapter also examines the incipient utopia in Marxism of a future planned economy. It summarizes diverse criticisms of collective planning from Albert Schäffle to Friedrich Hayek. Marx ruled out an economy consisting of autonomous worker cooperatives, but such a scheme is more viable than nationwide collectivization and the abolition of markets.

Chapter six continues the discussion of Marxism. It argues that the rule of one class over another, even if the ruling class is a majority, nullifies the principle of universal human rights, and paves the way for a totalitarian system. The realities of organization in any large-scale society (numbering in the thousands or millions) mean that effective direct rule by the whole population is impossible and some kind of leadership or elite is necessary. Marxists are also negligent concerning the rule of law. For example, in the Soviet Union, rights were deemed to be granted by the state, to be withdrawn if it desired. Acting against the state, or ‘against the revolution’ became a vague, catch-all crime. For reasons outlined in the chapter, Marxism generally carries the seeds of totalitarianism.

Chapter seven is a defence of democracy and human rights. It opens with some examples of Left apologetics for repressive Communism in Russia, China and Cambodia. There is a comparison of death tolls, first between capitalism and Communism and second between democratic capitalism and totalitarianism of all kinds. It is argued that democratic systems, where there is some protection of human rights, can evidently reduce the risks of famine and war. Democracy may also help economic development, at least for countries above relatively low levels of output per capita. The penultimate section discusses rights and their possible justifications. If rights are difficult to justify a priori by reason alone, the evidence of the twentieth century shows decisively that the protection of rights helps to reduce human suffering. The chapter ends with some diagrammatic depictions of different views in relation to the originally-defined notions of Left and Right.

Chapter eight is an attack on normative cultural relativism, described as ‘cultural relativism’ for short. Cultural relativists argue that we (especially those of us from the West) should not criticize the moral values of other cultures. Its proponents allege that such criticism furthers Western globalization or imperialism by imposing Western values on the rest of the world. Cultural relativism was fuelled by reactions against Western military intervention in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. But being critical of Western brutality and hypocrisy does not mean that one should be indifferent to female genital mutilation, wife-burning, or dowry murder, as some prominent ‘feminists’ seem to propose. Such arguments are internally contradictory and obnoxious.

Chapter nine addresses religion, with a primary focus on Islam. Criticism of a religion is not racist. But the ill-defined charge of ‘Islamophobia’ has prevented critical discussion of the nature of Islam. The immense contribution of Islam to world art and culture is acknowledged. But Islam today differs from other major religions – including Christianity and Judaism – in important respects. It has not yet accomplished an adequate separation of religion from law. In Islam as still practiced in many communities, basic laws derive directly from religious texts and are regarded as the word of God. By contrast, legislation in the modern West is legitimated via the authority of representative democracy. Islam devolves the implementation of several legal-religious rules onto the believers themselves, who under God’s instruction from the Qur’an, may take the law into their own hands, and mete out prescribed punishment to rule-breakers. These factors make the reconciliation of existing Islamic cultures with post-Enlightenment societies difficult. Some Muslims are trying to modernise Islam, but the blanket charge of Islamophobia dissuades critical discussion that may help reform.

Criticizing Islam as a doctrine is not the same as criticizing Muslims as people. I do not criticise Muslims as persons. I have no time for populists like Donald Trump who pick on Muslims and would deny them their human rights. It is important to uphold the right of people to believe in anything. What matters most is practice. A key problem is the practical unification within Islam of law and religion, which is incompatible with the post-Enlightenment separation of religion from the state. This chapter, like the others, is above all a defence of Enlightenment principles and institutions.

Chapter ten contains two letters to imaginary friends. This epistolary device is intended to help clarify my own position to the reader, in relation to two prominent currents of opinion. The first letter is to a free-market libertarian. I recognise the strengths in her position but argue that the basic libertarian stance needs to be updated in the light of massive developments in the financial and corporate world, of ongoing threats of financial instability, of growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth in developed economies, of the growing economic importance of information and knowledge, and of the need for state intervention in some spheres, including to deal with the problem of climate change. The second letter is to an enduring socialist, who still wishes to maximize public ownership and minimize markets. I argue that this position has received fatal blows in the twentieth century, from theoretical critiques and from practical catastrophes. Socialism – at least in the classic sense – is dead. The welfare state, perhaps also with a significant public sector, is not. Dealing with inequality within capitalism is also vital. The real debate concerns what direction we would wish to take capitalism.

Chapter eleven concludes the book by outlining a policy agenda for a New Old Left. There are foremost emphases on the problem of inequality and on the survival of democracy in a complex world. Possible measures to deal with inequality include the enhancement of educational provision, a guaranteed basic income, and a politically viable mechanism for a substantial redistribution of wealth. I emphasize a gradual and experimental approach, which I describe as evotopian. I modernise the classic French revolutionary slogan, to ‘liberty, equality, democracy and solidarity’.